Faith, Parents, Practice

Is Male Circumcision Child Abuse?

As Islamophobia has gained traction in the West, we have seen a sustained and increasingly influential attack on Muslim practices. From the hijab ban in France, the law against minarets in Switzerland, and the ban of Halal slaughter in Belgium, Muslims are seeing a powerful and well-funded attack on religious practices important to their faith and identity. These attacks have often been justified under the guise of Human Rights and ethics. When the French banned the hijab for example, it was supposedly out of a concern for oppressed Muslim women, and when Belgians banned halal slaughter, it was supposedly out of a sense of care for these animals. [1]

One such attack that seems to be gaining momentum in Europe is against the practice of male circumcision. In February 2018, Iceland was planning to become the first country in Europe to ban male circumcision. Silja Gunnarsdóttir of the Progressive Party, proposed the ban and argued:

If we have laws banning circumcision for girls, then we should do so for boys.”

Other parties in Europe have proposed similar bans and they too seem to be popular amongst many European populations. [2]

Does this hostility towards male circumcision stem from a sincere concern for the well-being of children or is it merely a symptom of deep-rooted Islamophobia and ignorance? While it may be possible that they really do think that removing the foreskin is a grave injustice, their case is so poorly argued, contrary to such a large body of medical evidence, that you can’t help but assume something else is at play here. It would be pertinent to reflect a little on the argument against circumcision.

The argument for banning male circumcision is as follows:

  1. There is no difference between male and female circumcision.
  2. Female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) in modern parlance, is a form of child abuse.  
  3. Therefore, male circumcision is also a form of child abuse.  

The conclusion follows from the premises, but the first premise is incorrect. There is a huge amount of medical literature showing premise 1 to be false. Scientific evidence shows that male circumcision has a number of significant medical benefits.

A meta-analysis in 2005 surveyed data on over 400,000 boys and concluded that circumcision reduced the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs). [3] The benefit was for all boys but the greatest in those at highest risk of UTIs. Most UTIs can be treated effectively with antibiotics, but they can also be severe, causing hospitalisation, kidney damage, and even sepsis and death.

Photo/Japheth Mast

Furthermore, circumcision removes the risk of all foreskin disorders, including Phimosis, Paraphimosis, and Balanitis [4]. It does this quite simply by removing the foreskin – no foreskin means no diseases of the foreskin. Phimosis is excessively tight foreskin and can cause redness, soreness, swelling, problems passing urine, difficulty maintaining cleanliness and sexual dysfunction. Paraphimosis is when the foreskin becomes trapped and cannot be reduced. It is a medical emergency as it can cut off blood supply and cause gangrene. Balanitis is an infection of the foreskin which can be caused by phimosis but can also occur without the latter.

Circumcision also reduces the risk of a panoply of sexually transmitted disorders (STDs), including Syphilis, Chlamydia, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), and HIV.  HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer in women and studies have shown that women with circumcised male partners are less likely to get cervical cancer, suggesting that circumcising males also confers health benefits on females [5]. Perhaps the most striking benefit is that on HIV risk, reducing the chances of getting the virus by 60%. The benefit was so impressive that in populations with high HIV prevalence, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said:

It should be considered an efficacious intervention for HIV prevention.” [6]

Circumcision is a medical procedure and all procedures carry small risks. However, these are minimal when carried out by experienced doctors who observe good hygiene practices. A review of the evidence by the prestigious American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found that ‘the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks’ [7]. A recent scientific review in the journal, Global Health, went even further, concluding that the benefit of circumcision over the long run ‘greatly exceeds risks‘, with no adverse effect on sexual function or pleasure [8].

Given all of these health benefits, we should ask those against circumcision: if you care so much about young boys, why aren’t you promoting circumcision? Any procedure with multiple benefits and minimal risks is in the child’s best interests, so why not act in the best interests of your children and circumcise them? Perhaps you think it is better to let them choose when they are older and that this better respects their autonomy. Notice, that you don’t make the same argument when it comes to immunisations, antibiotics, or even sending your children to school. As responsible parents, we regularly act in our children’s best interests after weighing up benefits and risks.

Unfortunately, nothing comes without risks – including immunisation, antibiotics, and sending our children to school – but if the benefits outweigh the risks, we ought to act and not wait. If anyone is guilty of child abuse here, it is those who want to ban a procedure that promotes the health of children by protecting them from many serious diseases. I ask those who are against male circumcision to reconsider.


Reference(s):

  1. https://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20081111_1.htm
  2. A survey by Megafon in early 2018 showed that 83% of Danish citizens favoured a ban on circumcising boys
  3. https://adc.bmj.com/content/90/8/853
  4. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/phimosis/
  5. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(17)30386-8/fulltext
  6. http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/malecircumcision/en/
  7. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Newborn-Male-Circumcision.aspx
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5478224/
Muntadar is a graduate in Philosophy from the University of London

2 Comments

  1. Hi Hugh, I only just saw your comment.

    A few points.

    Firstly, you say urine infections ‘may be treated.. or clear up’. That’s true, but they may also cause permanent kidney damage and death.

    Secondly, you say the benefit with respect to UTI reduction is too small to justify circumcision. The answer is that my case for circumcision is cumulative: there are multiple benefits when taken together overwhelmingly justify the procedure. Reducing UTIs is one of them. Removing multiple foreskin disorders, foreskin infections is another, reducing STDs, including HIV and cancer-causing HPV etc,

    Thirdly, your ad hominem against a proponent of circumcision fails. Readers are free to read the whole paper published in an academic journal and replete with references to scientific studies, and they can make up their own mind.

    Fourthly the AAP said that the benefits outweigh the harms. I argue that that is all you need to justify a procedure.

    Fifthly, you say people ‘manage very well’ without circumcision. But that is irrelevant to the question. The question is whether the benefits justify the procedure. If they do then it is in the child’s best interests to have it done.

  2. It is good to see a Muslim source taking note of opposition to infant male genital cutting, implying it is at last being questioned in the Islamic world, as it is everywhere else.

    Your article fails to make its case. The source you cite for Urinary Tract Infections, for example, shows at least 110 boys would have to be cut in vain to prevent one infection (that can be treated when it occurs, or may clear up without treatment). When genital cutting can cause death or serious disfigurement, this is an absurd level of risk for so little benefit.

    Two of your sources – including your bold claims about the benefits of genital cutting – are by a genital-cutting fanatic (his own Facebook page links to a circumcision-fetish group) who plays fast and loose with the facts.

    The AAP admits that ” the benefits are not great enough to recommend universal newborn circumcision” and even that has been condemned as culturall biased by representatives of the paediatric associations of Austria, Britain, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands, and senior paediatricians in Canada, the Czech Republic, France and Poland.

    The main argument against the medical claims is that most of the developed world manages very well without any non-therapeutic, non-consented genital cutting. We are not dying in the streets from any of the diseases it is supposed to be so good against.

    We do not say there is no difference between male and female genital cutting, of course, but when you compare tribal female cutting with tribal male cutting, surgical with surgical (instead of tribal FGC with surgical MGC as those defending MGC always do) the difference between the sexes falls away. Tribal cutting of either sex is indeed barbaric, surgical somewhat less so, but still a human rights violation, whoever it is done to without their own informed adult consent or pressing medical need.

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