The media overlooked an important story late last month that should dramatically change how doctors and hospitals treat newborn babies. On January 25, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced a study updating its recommendations on avoiding, minimizing, or treating pain in infants. The AAP statement cites research showing that many “routine” interventions are extremely painful and that there are both short- and long-term consequences of babies’ exposure to painful stimuli.
Now that the AAP is asking health facilities to implement “a pain-prevention program … minimizing the number of painful procedures performed” on newborns, we need to ask again why doctors continue to circumcise nearly a million baby boys a year in the United States. Unlike other painful stimuli the AAP cites, including heel punctures or IV insertion, circumcision is a protracted surgery that does not diagnose or treat any illness, but rather subjects tiny boys to extreme pain for a medically unnecessary procedure.
Until recently, circumcisions have been carried out with no pain relief at all. Instead, practitioners used only physical restraints. Even today, it’s estimated that as many as half of circumcising doctors do not employ analgesia, and that the methods used the rest of the time are only partially effective, if not outright dangerous. (“EMLA,” a topical anesthetic cream widely used in U.S. hospitals, is specifically contraindicated for use “on the genitals of children” in the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately, as the AAP statement acknowledges, it’s nearly impossible to manage pain in infants, given their small size and vulnerability to chemical interventions – even the questionably effective and widely used sugar pacifiers. Implicit throughout the AAP statement is the fact that the safer the analgesic, the less effective it is in eliminating pain.
The next step
Now that the AAP has gone on record to affirm that babies feel and suffer the consequences of pain, and should not be subjected to painful procedures if they can be avoided, the logical next step is for the AAP to call unequivocally for doctors to stop circumcising babies. In its 86-year history, the AAP has never recommended circumcision and has always held that it’s not medically necessary. But, recently, as more and more parents opt out of the procedure for their boys, the trade association’s enthusiasm for circumcision has only increased. In 2012, while admitting that the complications and risks of infant circumcision have never been studied systematically, the AAP took the regrettable position that the operation’s benefits outweigh the risks.
Medical experts from around the world disagree. In response to the AAP’s 2012 statement, a large group of European physicians and ethicists wrote, “Cultural bias reflecting the normality of nontherapeutic male circumcision in the United States seems obvious, and the report’s conclusions are different from those reached by physicians in other parts of the Western world… [Their claims of] health benefits… are questionable, weak, and likely to have little public health relevance in a Western context.”
Notably, far fewer than 10% of adult men in Europe are circumcised, compared to 75% of the adult male population in the United States.
Now we have a systematic study about the short- and long-term risks of pain inflicted upon infants. This is all we need to know in order for the AAP to stand up and say to its members: “Removing a boy’s foreskin is not medically necessary, it is painful, and the pain may compromise his neurological development for years hence. The AAP recommends that the circumcision of male infants cease.”
In my experience, the more you know about circumcision, the more you oppose it. One important fact is that the foreskin is not “extra skin,” but a natural, necessary part of the male anatomy that protects the head of the penis, provides natural lubrication, and enhances sexual pleasure for men and their partners. In 2011, a study published in the International Journal of Men’s Health found that circumcised men have a 4.5 times greater chance of suffering from erectile dysfunction than intact men.
As an activist, bioethicist, attorney and, most importantly, a mother, I feel a glimmer of hope when I read the AAP’s new policy statement. I see a medical organization increasingly boxed into a corner as it tries to escape the inevitable: infant circumcision is not medically necessary, it is unethical, and it has no place in legitimate medical practice. The organization, which pledges its commitment to “the optimal physical, mental, and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents, and young adults,” thus has no legitimate path other than to tell its physician members to stop circumcising baby boys.
February 13, 2016