Opinion: It’s time to end inaccurate criticisms of male circumcision

A man in Swaziland opts for circumcision in 2008, after the United Nations reported that the procedure could reduce the risk of contracting HIV by up to 60%.
(Schalk van Zuydam / Associated Press)

The recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should quell the unfounded arguments that male circumcision is no better than or different from female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation. According to the draft guidelines released by the CDC, the benefits of male circumcision clearly outweigh the risks, in the form of reduced risks of urinary tract infection as infants and penile cancer later in life, and lower risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

It’s understandable that circumcision has become controversial. It’s a permanent change made to the body, usually in infancy. (It should be noted that parents make all kinds of decisions that affect their children’s lives permanently; circumcision happens to be a particularly visible one.) At least, foes of circumcision say, the procedure should be delayed until the boy grows old enough to make his own decision. That argument, along with some unsuccessful local efforts to ban circumcision within certain cities, conflicts with the beliefs of Jews and Muslims, whose religions call for male circumcision early in life. There is some evidence that the procedure is easier to recover from when done early in life — but it’s also true that most of the benefits are accrued later in life.

The CDC report won’t end the debate, nor should it necessarily do so. Perhaps its most important short-term good will be to increase the likelihood that the procedure will be covered by health insurance, because circumcision could not be viewed as solely a cosmetic procedure, but rather one that carried health benefits backed by the most current scientific research. That gives parents the option -- either way.


But it should end the scurrilous argument that male circumcision, with its very low complication rate, is mutilation on par with female circumcision. There are no known health benefits to female genital circumcision and a long list of not-uncommon consequences, including fistulas, abscesses and childbirth complications.

Of course, even religious traditions shouldn’t outweigh health concerns. Just as female genital mutilation is outlawed in this country no matter what the religious beliefs of the parents, if the CDC report had found similar complications with male circumcision, then there should be serious conversations about whether the procedure should be allowed. But that’s not what the science shows; until there is solid evidence to contradict the CDC report, conversations about restricting parents’ ability to make this decision for their sons should end.

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