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Pros and Cons of Circumcision (Spoiler: You’ve Been Lied to)

Pros and Cons of Circumcision (Spoiler: You’ve Been Lied to)

Your search led you here to read about the pros and cons of circumcision, but the truth is, you’ve likely been lied to about the purported pros. Circumcision supporters claim that there are health benefits to this invasive, irreversible surgical procedure, but these have all been debunked. On the other hand, intactivists (advocates for keeping the foreskin), point out the proven risks and ethical implications of circumcising a child, along with the lack of medical necessity.

Understanding Circumcision: A Historical and Cultural Perspective

Circumcision is an ancient practice that has historically been used as a rite of passage, a symbol of identity, and a religious rite. For example, in Judaism, it is performed on the eighth day of a male child’s life to signify the covenant between God and Abraham from the Torah — however, alternatives to physical circumcision for those who practice Judaism are becoming more widely accepted and adopted.

Infant circumcision in the U.S. is widely practiced across the entire population; however, it is often associated with a rite of Judaism. Intact America Founding Executive Director Georganne Chapin notes in her intactivist memoir This Penis Business (Lucid House Publishing, 2024) that today many Jews have their sons circumcised in hospitals by doctors within the first 48 hours, which has no religious significance. Others have opted for an alternative to the traditional brit milah (or bris) cutting ceremony called a brit shalom (covenant of peace). Lisa Braver Moss and Rebecca Wald noted in an article for Intact America (https://intactamerica.org/dyk_about-brit-shalom/) that:

Brit shalom is an uplifting, celebratory baby-naming ceremony specifically designed for non-circumcising families. It’s an affirmation that despite what may be seen by others as a radical choice, the family still considers themselves to be Jewish. And it’s a beautiful symbolic acknowledgment of the ancient Abrahamic covenant.”

Judaism is associated so closely with the rite of circumcision that post-World War II studies in the United States often cited the low rate of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) in Jews as an argument for the benefits of circumcision. What the studies did not take into account, as Edward Wallerstein pointed out in his groundbreaking book, Circumcision: An American Fallacy, (1980) is that the low rate of STDs in circumcised Jewish men was because Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, tended to live insular lives within a structured family and social network that discouraged contact with women outside the religion and thus were more likely to be protected from contracting an STD. Being circumcised had nothing to do with it. However, Wallerstein reveals the junk science behind many of the conclusions drawn by early studies due to the lack of context in the lifestyles of the study subjects.

Cons of Circumcision

Immediate physical trauma

Infant circumcision is far from risk-free and complications include pain, bleeding, infection, and even death. The pain associated with circumcision is often overlooked. Up to 96 percent of babies in the United States and Canada receive no anesthesia when they are circumcised, according to a report from the University of Alberta in Edmonton published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) in 1997. The study found circumcision so traumatic that doctors ended the study early rather than subject any more babies to the operation without anesthesia.

According to a study published by the Pediatric Surgery International on February 14, 2019:

“The vast majority of circumcisions are performed by pediatric and obstetric providers in the newborn nursery under local anesthesia, but most pediatric and obstetric providers do not offer circumcision after 1 month of age, or for infants over 10 pounds. Conversely, most pediatric general surgeons and pediatric urologists do not perform circumcisions without general anesthesia, and therefore, do not offer circumcision before 6 months of age, presumably to mitigate anesthetic risks. These risks include apnea and bradycardia in children under 6 months of age, laryngospasm in children under 1 year of age, and the concern for long-term effects on brain development in children under 3 years of age.”

Historically, one of the reasons anesthesia of any kind was not used on tiny infants was the mistaken belief that infants feel little or no pain from the surgery and that infants would not remember the pain even if they did feel the cutting and tearing of tissue on one of the most sensitive body parts of a human. However, researchers discovered what most mothers have known instinctively: that for those babies circumcised without anesthesia, there was not only severe pain but also an increased risk of choking and difficulty breathing, as well as increased heart rates. Some babies go into shock, and this interruption of mother-infant bonding can disrupt breastfeeding.

The infant’s open wound in proximity to urine and feces in a diaper can become severely infected if not carefully monitored. Bleeding can also be significant and require further intervention. Absorbent diapers often hide the fact that the infant is losing a dangerous amount of blood. The accidental removal of too much foreskin can lead to a tight or short penile shaft or damage to the urethra.

But one of the biggest immediate risks of circumcision is damage or deformity of the penis itself due to an inexperienced physician, medical student, or faulty equipment. In some cases, major children’s hospitals or individual practitioners have been sued because they have damaged the penis so severely that complete amputations were necessary.

Long-term physical consequences

For starters, an adult male foreskin left intact and stretched out would be roughly the size of a 3×5 index card. Depending on who performs the infant circumcision, the foreskin removal would decrease the size of what would have been the adult male penis by approximately 20–50 percent. The foreskin plays an important role in sexual pleasure by contributing to overall sensitivity through its high concentration of nerve endings. Studies show that removing it could result in a decrease in sexual pleasure or sensitivity.

Additionally, circumcision can cause the glans to become dry and more exposed, which can cause discomfort, especially during sexual activity or prolonged friction. Sometimes, complications from the initial circumcision procedure, such as uneven foreskin removal or skin bridges, may require medical intervention or further surgeries. In severe cases, surgical correction may be necessary.

Meatal stenosis, a condition where the urethral opening narrows, causing problems such as painful urination and difficulty emptying the bladder, is more common in circumcised males, which underscores the importance of carefully considering and fully understanding the long-term impact of circumcision before making a decision.

In the United States, a large percentage of men suffer from erectile dysfunction as a result of circumcision due to the lifelong lack of the natural covering of the penis. In turn, they experience reduced sensitivity and pleasure.

The psychological impact of circumcision

Psychological consequences can vary from short-term trauma following the procedure that is visible in changes in behavior to long-term issues with self-esteem and relationships. Circumcised men may experience negative emotional responses such as feelings of loss, resentment, or anger. In addition, some men may experience a sense of violation or powerlessness.

On top of these devastating psychological effects of circumcision, taking away a part of a child’s body for cultural or religious reasons without their consent is viewed as a violation of our human right to autonomy over our body.

Ethical and human rights considerations

The debate surrounding circumcision, especially for infant boys, includes discussions about ethical considerations such as bodily integrity, autonomy, informed consent, and comparison with female genital mutilation (FGM).

Circumcision is a human rights violation because it involves removing a healthy part of a child’s body without their consent. When a parent signs a consent form for circumcision, they are making a lifelong decision for their child that will impact their immediate and future physical and psychological well-being, in addition to their sexual health. The decision to circumcise should be made by the individual when they are old enough to fully comprehend the implications.

Although the motivations and extent of physical alteration differ, male circumcision without consent is comparable to female genital mutilation, which is considered illegal and a violation of human rights in many countries, including the U.S. The same standards should apply to both male and female genital mutilation.

Pros of Circumcision

There are none that we know of. All of the supposed medical benefits that were touted for years have been debunked. As Marilyn Milos says in her intactamerica.org column Ask Marilyn, under Falsehoods & Facts (June 18, 2018):

“The truth is no medical society in the world recommends it.”

Let’s consider two of the most common medical “benefit” claims.

Protection against STDs (sometimes called STIs) and lower risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs): False.

The sexual transmission of diseases does not happen unless a baby or child is assaulted or their sexual organs come into contact with someone who is infected. A study on sexually transmitted infections and circumcised men that appeared in ISRN Urology in 2013 concluded that the prevention of sexually transmitted infections cannot rationally be interpreted as a benefit of circumcision, and any policy of newborn circumcision for the general population to prevent sexually transmitted infections is not supported by any evidence in the medical literature.

(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3654279/).

The risk of an intact (uncircumcised) baby developing a urinary tract infection (UTI) is less than 1 percent. Female infants are more likely to develop a UTI because the urethra is shorter and germs from the bowel can pass more easily into the bladder. Yet no one suggests amputating a part of their sexual organs. Infant boys, like infant girls, can be treated with hydration and an antibiotic. As for STDs, when a boy becomes sexually active, the best protection for both intact and circumcised boys is a condom.

A circumcised penis is more hygienic. False. A natural penis can be easily cleaned, from the base to the tip of the penis, like a finger. Georganne Chapin was confronted during an MSNBC TV interview by Nancy Snyderman with the notion that boys simply will not keep their bodies clean. Chapin responded by saying:

“Easy, Dr. Snyderman! We teach our children how to brush their teeth and how to clean their ears, and we certainly teach our girls how to wash their genitals. There’s no reason we can’t teach our boys the same thing.”

The biggest advance in the prevention of hygiene diseases is the availability of warm or hot water. Preventing foreskin infections is a basic hygienic practice like any other.

Real Life Stories: A Victim of Circumcision

Many men have shared their negative circumcision experiences with Intact America. They feel violated and angry towards the adults who decided for them. Their stories illustrate the long-lasting psychological effects of circumcision, including feelings of loss, violation, and anger. Many also complain about the reduced sensitivity and ongoing discomfort they experience as adults.

Brad Christensen (read Brad’s full story here), for example, was circumcised as an infant and grew up with aggression and attention difficulties, leading to various psychiatric interventions. At age five, after learning about foreskin function from an intact friend, Brad confronted his mother about his circumcision, expressing anger upon learning the foreskin could not regrow. Later, during adolescence, he developed a varicocele, a condition involving swollen veins in the scrotum potentially affecting fertility, causing further distress and uncertainty about the impact of their earlier circumcision.

Brad has struggled with anxiety, depression, sleep issues, stomach problems, and thoughts of suicide, attributing much of this mental health strain to the trauma of circumcision. These issues highlight the broader societal implications that circumcision contributes to dysfunction in children and adults.

Brad has become an intactivist, advocating against circumcision and for neonatal ethics and bodily integrity. Inspired by other activists sharing their experiences, Brad urges the rejection of circumcision because it can cause irreversible harm.

Read more stories in our Voices column at https://www.intactamerica.org.

Article authored by Connor Judson Garrett