Thursday, May 27, 2010


A man's opinion on the subject of circumcision more often than not reflects the state of his own foreskin. The majority of men in this country are circumcised as infants and, therefore, have no memory of what it was like to have an intact member. They don't remember the pain of being circumcised and they are, more often than not, content with the appearance and function of their penis (and if they're not content, it usually has nothing to do with their lack of foreskin). On the other hand, most men who reach adulthood with intact foreskins are equally content with the appearance and function of their penis.

A woman's opinion of circumcision is more variable. European women, who are unaccustomed to circumcised penises, think that they are pretty funny-looking, and will generally prefer an uncircumcised man. American women, who are accustomed to circumcision, may think that foreskins are a bit strange. Fortunately for men from both camps, any woman worth having is smart enough to judge a man on qualities other than the presence or lack of a quarter ounce of skin (in truth, I have no idea how much an adult foreskin weighs, but you get the idea).

There have been quite a few studies evaluating the health risks and benefits of circumcision. If you ask the rabid anti-circumcision activists, they will cite the studies that found higher rates of erectile dysfunction in circumcised men, lower sensitivity of the glans of the penis in circumcised men and significantly reduced satisfaction with masturbation. They will also tell you the horror stories about circumcisions gone wrong, where more than the foreskin was removed or where post-surgical infections had disastrous, even deadly consequences. On the other hand, if you visit, a decidedly pro-circumcision website, you will find citations from studies showing that circumcision reduces rates of erectile dysfunction and increases sexual satisfaction. Interestingly, pro-circumcision advocates will either argue that circumcision increases the sensitivity of the glans of the penis, which sounds good, or they will argue that it decreases the sensitivity, which is also good... because it allows men to last longer during sex. Considering that men may experience either the problem of too much sensitivity or too little, its not clear to me that either change can be considered of universal benefit. The results of all of these studies add up to very few if any statistically significant results, and about as many anti-circumcision results as pro.

The most compelling argument for circumcision, since there is no consistent evidence of harm or benefit in terms of sexual function, comes from the studies relating to rates of disease in circumcised versus uncircumcised men. Advocates of circumcision will tell you that uncircumcised men have ten times the risk of penile cancer as compared to circumcised men. And the risk of penile cancer is related to other diseases that occur in greater frequency in uncircumcised men, including HPV, HIV and phimosis. However, the risk of penile cancer in American men is only 1 in 100,000. Therefore, we would have to do tens of thousands of circumcisions to prevent one case of penile cancer. And as rare as complications of circumcision are, for every ten thousand circumcisions we do, at least a few will result in serious complications. In essence, by performing neonatal circumcisions, we are trading the extremely slim possibility of disease in the older adult male for a similar possibility of serious iatrogenic complications beginning in infancy. Virtually all of the diseases that circumcision is purported to be protective against can be traced to poor hygiene. The most significant studies in defense of circumcision were performed in Africa, where access to clean water, condoms and changes in dangerous sexual practices, would have a more profound positive effect than would circumcising the entire population. In the Unites States, the incidence of these diseases is quite low and the means to prevent them, without circumcision, are readily available. Studies performed regarding circumcision in third world countries, therefore bear little relevance to the risks facing men in the U.S.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a very comprehensive policy statement regarding circumcision, which they revise frequently to reflect the most recent research regarding the possible health benefits of circumcision. However, they, like virtually every other respected medical society, ultimately conclude that the potential benefits of neonatal circumcision are insufficient to make a recommendation.

I would hazard a guess that most parents are not making the decision of whether to circumcise their sons based on their careful appraisal of its potential health benefits. Rather, they are making the decision based on one factor: Dad. If Dad is circumcised, then circumcision is the obvious, normal choice. Circumcised Dad will, no doubt, worry that his son will be the subject of locker room bullying if his penis does not conform to American standards. Circumcised Dad will assume the worst about the consequences of going uncircumcised and will latch onto the studies which indicate the vast dangers of possessing a foreskin. Ultimately, Circumcised Dad will be compelled to take the path of least resistance, which for him is to obey tradition and not question the decision that his own parents made for him. Uncircumcised Dad, of course, has no such concerns. He knows that, even if he did get curious looks in the locker room growing up, the rates of circumcision are steadily dropping so that nearly half the other boys in the locker room in the future will also be in possession of a foreskin. Uncircumcised Dad pays careful attention to the studies and statements that fail to support neonatal circumcision and wouldn't think of letting his son be altered.

As far as I am concerned, circumcision is an elective cosmetic procedure being routinely performed on individuals who are incapable of giving consent. Although they can not communicate the extent, and do not remember years later, circumcision causes infants stress and at least some degree of pain. And although the complications are infrequent, it is by no means clear that the benefits outweigh the risks. Therefore, I would not, as a doctor, recommend neonatal circumcision to my patients, I would not perform neonatal circumcisions, and my sons, if I have any, will not be circumcised. That said, I understand that many people have and will continue to choose circumcision with the best of intentions. I only hope that parents who have yet to make those decisions will do so with an open mind and as true an understanding of the facts as is possible.


  1. Having found out that I am having a son, this topic has been on my mind (to an extent). Thank you for posting about this since I am woefully uneducated about this topic (the only thing I know is a very bad joke told by my Ancient World Lit professor).

  2. I must confess that I thought of you while writing it. I'd be glad to share (unbiased) resources with you and Chris.

  3. It's such a complicated issue, and it's hard to discuss without revealing somewhat personal information (for men at least), which probably doesn't help. My dad was born outside of the US, making it rather unlikely that he was circumcised (I confess I never asked), but I was born in the US during the circumcision-as-default age. When my son was born, I honestly was ambivalent. I would have chosen to forego circumcision, but his mother wanted it; and I didn't feel strongly enough to go against her wishes. I'm okay with our decision, but I also believe that male circumcision for non-religious purposes will gradually fade away over the next generation or so.

  4. I wonder if this could become a rite of passage. Let the guy decide for himself when he is old enough to make decisions or when he reaches puberty or 18 or whatever.

    Are there dangers/problems of getting circumcised when you are an adult?

  5. The risks are less when performed on an adult for a couple of reasons. One risk you have with infants is the risk of removing too much or too little tissue, either of which can result in deformation. With adults, it's a lot easier to remove precisely what you want to remove. Another advantage of doing any sort of procedure on adults is that they are able to understand and communicate if there is a problem. Fever, unusual tenderness, bleeding, are problems that an adult man is going to notice and being able to seek help for that an infant relies on mom to notice.

    I find it a bit hard to imagine it becoming a choice that American men would routinely make. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

  6. You can always have it done later but you can't undo it once it is done. I know a few men that wish it was not done to them