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26th October 2011

Debate 2: Defending circumcision

Circumcision is a practice which has been debated for thousands of years, but to forcibly prevent it from happening would be wrong.

Circumcision of new-born males has been debated for thousands of years, but if done professionally and with appropriate following check-ups, there seems little reason to ban it. Those who would like to ban the procedure point to  the unethical nature of performing the procedure on young children, the risk of complications and the supposed cost to sexual activity in later life. However, advocates of circumcision claim that the potential health benefits outweigh any risk.

A study conducted by several doctors in Kenya between 2002 and 2005 aimed to find whether circumcision improved or impaired sexual activity. The study found that compared to pre-circumcision, “64.0% of circumcised men reported that their penis was “much more sensitive” and 54.5% rated their ease of reaching orgasm as “much more” at month 24”. Those circumcised at birth would be unable to comment on such a difference, but these men were sexually active before the procedure. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also found in 2007 that “male circumcision performed by well-trained medical professionals was safe and reduced the risk of acquiring HIV infection by approximately 60%”. Whilst they note that this is not 100% and that contraception should still be used, they nevertheless described the findings as “an important landmark in the history of HIV prevention”.

The important phrase in the WHO report is “performed by well-trained medical professionals”. Whilst complications do sometimes occur, several studies have found that this depends greatly on the experience and skill of the particular surgeon involved. In 1993, UK doctors N. Williams and L. Kapila found that, as circumcision was seen as a relatively minor procedure, it was often delegated to junior surgeons. If the procedure was taken more seriously, and surgeons were better trained to do it, then the already-low risk of complications could be further reduced.

Perhaps the largest issue, however, is the fact that new-born children are unable to consent to a procedure which will have a permanent effect on their lives. Obviously there are times when an infection or a severe case of phimosis leaves little choice but to operate, but there are certain faiths which advise the circumcision of all new-born males, regardless of circumstance.

Whilst I would never condone certain circumcision rituals, such as that done by the Xhosa tribe in South Africa with blunt or rusty blades, as long as the procedure will be done under anaesthetic and by an experienced surgeon, it should be up to the parents to make that decision. For a male not to be circumcised can have serious implications in some religions like Islam where an uncircumcised male may not participate fully in religious activity. In such religious societies, it would be likely that uncircumcised males could be ostracised to some degree if they had not undergone the procedure. Perhaps more concerning is the possibility that a ban on professional circumcision of newborns could lead to families attempting ‘DIY’ surgery with whatever instruments are available, leading to a dramatic increase in the risk of complications or even death.

As long as society starts to take circumcision more seriously rather than wincing at the thought of it, procedures could be improved and surgeons could be better trained. If that becomes the case then there seems little reason to prevent parents from having the option to circumcise their child.


See the other side of this debate.

What’s your opinion? @Mancuniondebate

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