Jeni Taylor, MPH MSN RN is a nurse, public health advocate and new mom from Northern Virginia, who blogs on her website, Little Sproutings, to share her experiences as a mother and discuss relevant baby-health topics to help parents.
On July 25th, 2015, Jeni published an article called “The circumcision decision“. On this article she intended to “research what the current evidence says about whether or not it’s indicated to circumcise in the developed world“. Her article obviously caused some backslash among the intactivist community.
In response, Jeni added a disclaimer: “I want to clarify that I am not an expert on the subject of circumcision, and this post is not intended to cover every aspect of such a complex issue. This post is focused strictly on the medical perspective.” Also, responding to a commenter who indicated that Jeni “never once bothered to mention the structure and function of the foreskin“, she responded that she “didn’t discuss the function of the foreskin. That wasn’t what this article was about and that wasn’t what I was set out to do when I wrote this article.”
At the end of the article, Jeni claims that “with regards to expert opinion, the research all points to maintaining this evidence-based practice“. Jeni, however, only reviewed U.S. sources. European medical associations for example hold different points of view in spite of having access to the same evidence.
The problem we have with this kind of article is that many parents will take it as a recommendation, in spite of the disclaimer (“I am not an expert”). And, many people who are not familiar with the topic won’t even ask the question of whether the foreskin has any kind of function or not.
Sure, Jeni said that “wasn’t what this article is about“, but you cannot separate these two elements. When you circumcise a baby, you negate the functions of the foreskin. The baby will never experience those functions. When you do not circumcise the baby, he will grow up to experience those functions. It’s just like the two sides of the coin. You can’t just flip one single side of the coin. Wherever one side goes, the other side follows.
Jeni wrote: “The risks of complications from a circumcision are very low, and most of those that occur are minor“. This statement alone is very incomplete and misleading.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP, on their 2012 technical report on circumcision (page 17 of 32): “The true incidence of complications after newborn circumcision is unknown, in part due to differing definitions of “complication”and differing standards for determining the timing of when a complication has occurred“
A few sentences later the same report indicates: “Significant acute complications are rare, occurring in approximately 1 in 500” – But is this really number really “rare”? Take into consideration approximately 1.2 million circumcisions in the United States every year, and you have 2,400 babies suffering significant acute complications every year, over a surgery that they didn’t need.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, on their policy statement from 2009, actually says: “Some of the risks of circumcision are low in frequency but high in impact (death, loss of penis); others are higher in frequency but much lower in impact (infection, which can be treated quickly and effectively, with no lasting ill-effects). Low impact risks, when they are readily correctable, do not carry great ethical significance. Evaluation of the significance of high-impact low-frequency risks is ethically contentious and variable between individuals. Some are more risk averse than others“.
But we are talking about babies. How do we know how risk adverse is a baby? Can parents even know?
We know for sure that babies had died as a result of circumcisions, and others have lost their penises (at least two of them in the U.S. in 2013). Babies have been forced to grow without penis, with the most known case being David Reimer (1965-2004) who was raised as a girl after the destruction of his penis, resumed male identity as a teenager, underwent two phalloplasties, and finally committed suicide in 2004. There were also two cases on the same day in a hospital in Atlanta on Aug.22, 1985. A two year old child suffered the same fate in 1984. Then, we have Mike Moore, who lost his penis during circumcision at age 7, circa 1991. And of course, the two babies from 2013, one in Pittsburgh and one in Memphis.
How many babies and children is it tolerable to force to go through life without their penis? Dear reader, how many of your sons would you consider tolerable to endure this complication?
While the American Academy of Pediatrics touts benefits -without being able to fully recommend circumcision-, the Royal Dutch Medical Association indicated in 2010:
“There is no convincing evidence that circumcision is useful or necessary in terms of prevention or hygiene. Partly in the light of the complications which can arise during or after circumcision, circumcision is not justifiable except on medical/therapeutic grounds. Insofar as there are medical benefits, such as a possibly reduced risk of HIV infection, it is reasonable to put off circumcision until the age at which such a risk is relevant and the boy himself can decide about the intervention, or can opt for any available alternatives.
“Contrary to what is often thought, circumcision entails the risk of medical and psychological complications. The most common complications are bleeding, infections, meatus stenosis (narrowing of the urethra) and panic attacks. Partial or complete penis amputations as a result of complications following circumcisions have also been reported, as have psychological problems as a result of the circumcision.
“Non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors is contrary to the rule that minors may only be exposed to medical treatments if illness or abnormalities are present, or if it can be convincingly demonstrated that the medical intervention is in the interest of the child, as in the case of vaccinations.
“Non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors conflicts with the child’s right to autonomy and physical integrity.”
In 2013 the Nordic Association for Clinical Sexology wrote: “Ancient historic account and recent scientific evidence leave little doubt that during sexual activity the foreskin is a functional and highly sensitive, erogenous structure, capable of providing pleasure to its owner and potential partners“
Not discussing the functions of the foreskin, dismissing the sexual role of the foreskin and minimizing the impact of the risks, are three ways in which the American medical community shows its bias in favor of circumcision.
Jeni claims that “Both the AAP and the medical community recommend male circumcisions, for the health and medical benefits”. The AAP never actually recommends circumcision. They favor it, but they do not recommend it, leaving the decision to the parents (which we disagree with since the parents are not the ones who have to live with the consequences, and as we showed before, these consequences can be catastrophic). It would be difficult to limit what Jeni means with “the medical community”. As we have seen in this article, the global medical community at large finds much less value in circumcision than the American medical community.
The AAP says: “Parents are entitled to factually correct, nonbiased information about circumcision“. Skipping the functions and anatomy of the foreskin is providing incomplete and biased information. The AAP themselves are guilty of this omission, and so is Jeni.
A 2013 letter by 38 European and Canadian Physicians, heads of medical associations, says of the AAP: “while striving for objectivity, the conclusions drawn by the 8 task force members reflect what these individual physicians perceived as trustworthy evidence. Seen from the outside, cultural bias reflecting the normality of nontherapeutic male circumcision in the United States seems obvious, and the report’s conclusions are different from those reached by physicians in other parts of the Western world, including Europe, Canada, and Australia.” Furthermore, “To these authors, only 1 of the arguments put forward by the American Academy of Pediatrics has some theoretical relevance in relation to infant male circumcision; namely, the possible protection against urinary tract infections in infant boys, which can easily be treated with antibiotics without tissue loss. The other claimed health benefits, including protection against HIV/AIDS, genital herpes, genital warts, and penile cancer, are questionable, weak, and likely to have little public health relevance in a Western context, and they do not represent compelling reasons for surgery before boys are old enough to decide for themselves.“
This conclusion contradicts the conclusion in Jeni’s article that we noted earlier, that “the research all points to maintaining this evidence-based practice“.
We wish that Jeni will understand that circumcision and non-therapeutic genital alterations on children of any gender violate the bodily autonomy and physical integrity of children, violates their human rights, and that she as a nurse, as a mother and as a blogger has a responsibility to protect children from unnecessary and harmful procedures.