Botched circumcisions can have both serious immediate negative effects—blood loss and infection, for instance—and long-term devastating consequences, like gender reassignment and death. How often does this happen? We don’t know.
Intact America Founding Executive Director Georganne Chapin reports in her book This Penis Business (Lucid House Publishing, 2024) that the 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Task Force on Circumcision stated:
1. “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…”; and 2. “Based on the data reviewed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to adequately assess the total impact of complications because the data are scant and inconsistent regarding the severity of complications.”
A New York Times article in 2012 stated that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted the agency did not keep track of deaths from infant circumcision because they are exceedingly rare. The same article featuring Dan Bollinger, Board Member of Intact America and a long-time intactivist, estimated that more than 100 baby boys die from circumcision complications every year in the U.S. (1)
There are no recent figures, but it is logical to assume that many infant deaths from circumcision are attributed to other causes—stroke, blood loss, reaction to anesthesia, and infection, for example—without the caveat that those causes were due to complications caused by a botched circumcision.
Short-term Consequences of Circumcision Gone Wrong
1. Pain and discomfort: Swelling and inflammation around the surgical site are logical results of a surgical assault on the tiny penis of the perfect body of a 2-day-old infant. In addition, inadequate or incorrect administration of anesthesia during circumcision will cause intense pain, leading to significant distress and discomfort.
2. Excessive bleeding: If the person performing the circumcision cuts deeply, takes too much tissue, and/or doesn’t control bleeding, a newborn may lose too much blood and need emergency intervention to try to stop the bleeding. Most newborns are born with slight anemia. Even just losing a small amount of blood can cause shock or death in an infant. Absorbent diapers can hide the fact that a newly circumcised baby is losing a dangerous amount of blood, yet parents and guardians are rarely warned about this possibility on the so-called “informed” consent forms, which are supposed to list the risks associated with this surgery but rarely do.
3. Infection: Failure to follow appropriate sterilization methods or insufficient wound care post-operation can heighten the chances of urological and other infections. The baby now has an open wound where he is urinating (and urine is acidic, which causes burning and irritation) and having bowel movements in his diaper. A moist, unsanitary environment is a breeding ground for infections that can result in discomfort, inflammation, and potentially severe issues if left untreated.
4. Trauma: While we do not know the long-term effects of trauma from ritual circumcision other than anecdotally, we do know just from looking at an infant how distressed he is when taken away from his mother, restrained, immobilized, and cut. Mothers are aware when their babies are returned to them that their babies are different than before they left. Studies show that birth bonding is one of the most important tasks between mother (and father) and infant in the early days, and circumcision interrupts this bonding time.
5. Deformity of sexual organs: Why risk deformity or loss of a sexual organ due to purely cosmetic, unnecessary surgery on an infant? A story published in The Palm Beach Post in 2021 revealed a doctor who botched two circumcisions—one resulting in the amputation of the infant’s penis in 2017 and the other in the loss of a third of the infant’s penis in 2021—had been allowed to continue to practice even after being named in four disciplinary cases and nine malpractice actions previously. With this lax attitude toward the health of our country’s most helpless humans, how can parents know for sure that their decision to have voluntary surgery on their infant will not result in loss of or damage to his penis?2
6. Death: As stated above, we don’t know how many babies die as a result of the unnecessary medical intervention of circumcision, but Dan Bollinger of Intact America estimated that more than 100 baby boys die from circumcision complications every year in the U.S. in his article “Lost Boys: An Estimate of U.S. Circumcision-Related Infant Deaths” in the journal Boyhood Studies. (3)
From Marilyn Fayre Milos’ Please Don’t Cut the Baby! A Nurse’s Memoir (2024), Lucid House Publishing:
“Nearly 200 people attended NOCIRC’s 2nd International Symposium on Circumcision, held at the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco, April 30-May 3, 1991. Both anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who gave the keynote address, and Michel Odent, who closed the symposium, acknowledged our international symposia as the crux of the human rights movement. They emphasized the importance of accepting every new human being into the world with respect, dignity, compassion, and love—and recognized that acts of violence against newborns and children have a shattering effect upon all of humanity.”
Long-Term Consequences of Botched Circumcisions
1. Skin adhesions: If the circumcision wound doesn’t heal well enough, adhesions may form where the remaining foreskin sticks to the head of the penis. This may cause discomfort and may need extra health care and medical treatments to fix.
2. Skin bridges: Sometimes, when skin is cut, scar tissue can grow between the cut edges and form a skin bridge. This can cause problems with cleanliness, and discomfort and may result in complications and pain during sexual activity.
3. Uneven or excessive skin removal: Uneven or excessive removal of skin during circumcision may cause discomfort and potentially affect sexual function due to an uneven or tight appearance. Because circumcision is done by a variety of practitioners and isn’t regulated, there may be someone inexperienced amputating the foreskin of the baby’s penis. For example, at teaching colleges, a first-year medical student may perform the surgery. When you are removing the sensitive tissue that would have comprised 30-40 percent of the adult male’s penis (if you laid out the adult foreskin, it would be about the size of a 3 x 5-inch index card) from an infant’s tiny penis, millimeters count. Many men, who are cut “too tight,” suffer from bleeding and pain when they have an erection. When the foreskin (prepuce) is removed unevenly, the erect penis may hook to one side or the other.
4. Nerve damage: Nerve damage occurs with every circumcision because the operation removes the most important sensory component of the foreskin—thousands of coiled fine-touch receptors called Meissner’s corpuscles. Also lost are branches of the dorsal nerve and specialized erotogenic nerve endings of several types.
5. Difficulty with urination and meatal stenosis: A study in Denmark that followed intact and circumcised boys over many years found that somewhere between 5 and 20 percent of circumcised boys will develop a pathological narrowing of the urinary opening and urethra as a late result of their circumcision. (4)
6. Psychological impact: Supporting our belief that every circumcision is a botched circumcision, Intact America’s Voices section relays many stories of emotional distress and concerns later in life about body image due to circumcision. Many adult men report having traumatic memories of their circumcisions and struggle with anger over being robbed of their ability to feel more sensation due to the removal of their foreskin. Read a few of their stories here: Eugenio Ocasio; Brad Christensen; A.L. These are the people, as well as newborn infants, for whom we are fighting to end circumcision and to enforce human rights for all.
7. Suicide: Death from circumcision can occur many years later in the form of suicide. Marilyn Milos writes in her memoir Please Don’t Cut the Baby! about Jonathon Conte, one of the leaders of the Bay Area Intactivists. He made the sign below for Mother’s Day 2014. That night Marilyn received a call that he had taken his own life. When he finally had the courage to tell his mother he disliked being circumcised, rather than discussing it with him in a loving manner, she told him to “get over it.” For some men, circumcision is a primal psychological wound. Intactivists went on to celebrate Jonathon’s life every year with a memorial luncheon following their World Wide Day of Genital Autonomy demonstration in Washington DC.
“In 1966, after an 8-month-old named Bruce Reimer lost his penis to a horribly botched circumcision, doctors persuaded his family to allow gender-reassignment surgery and raise him as a girl. Reimer later re-declared himself male, and eventually took his own life, at 38, in 2004.” — New York Magazine
Are we just being pessimistic when we suggest parents consider the negative consequences of circumcision before signing a consent form? Not at all. Information on Stanford Medical’s Newborn Nursery page lists these complications of circumcision to consider: bleeding, infection, insufficient or excessive foreskin removed, adhesions, skin bridges, inclusion cysts, meatitis, meatal stenosis, urinary retention, stenosis, chordee, hypospadias, epispadias, urethrocutaneous fistula, necrosis of the penis, amputation of the glans, and death.
Holly Baltz, “5 Takeaways: Palm Beach Post Investigation into Florida OB-GYN and Babies, Moms Who Died Under His Care.” Palm Beach Post, September 23, 2021
Dan Bollinger, “Lost Boys: An Estimate of U.S. Circumcision-Related Infant Deaths.” Boyhood Studies (4:10, March 1, 2010).