Health

Circumcision: Healthy or Needless? The Debate Rages On

You might think it should be easy to assess the benefits and risks of circumcision. You'd be wrong

To snip or not to snip? That's the vexing question so many parents of newborn boys face in an age when debate about the pros and cons of circumcision is as heated as ever.

Leaving aside religious reasons to defrock the penis of its foreskin, it should be easy to assess the pros and cons of the procedure, right? Wrong.

A new salvo on the pro-circumcision side was just launched in the form of an article in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. After a comprehensive review of the available medical literature and data, a team of docs—led by the Aussie circumcision advocate Brian Morris, Professor Emeritus at the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Sydney—declared that circumcision's benefits exceed the risks 100 to one.

Morris and his colleagues' review found that circumcision helps protect infants and adults from damaging urinary tract infections, and that it protects grown men from phimosis (a tight foreskin that cannot be retracted), many infections (including several STIs and HIV), and penile cancer.

"Denial of infant male circumcision is denial of his rights to good health, something that all responsible parents should consider carefully," said Morris in an interview with The Daily Beast.

One hundred to one sounds pretty damn convincing. How could anyone argue with those odds? The thing is, all of this has been claimed over and over before. The American Academy of Pediatrics, or APA, basically agrees with Morris that circumcision has more upsides than downsides, but it still says that ultimately it's the parents' decision whether to have it done or not.

The APA's apparent waffling could be read as an indicator that the case of Morris and other "pro-circers," as they're called, isn't so solid. Indeed, in a post on The Daily Beast, a New England physician who writes under the pen name Russell Saunders said, "Though there are some health benefits to circumcision, in my opinion, they are not significant enough for me to endorse the procedure for parents who would not otherwise choose it."

Anti-circers claim that most of the so-called positives amount to very few benefits. For example, penile cancer is extremely rare—so even a small increase in the likelihood of getting it from not circumcising still means the overwhelming majority of men won't ever get it. As for the claim about circumcision protecting from transmission of STIs and HIV, the anti-circers say that safe sex (and especially condoms) are what really count on that front, not whether or not a man's foreskin is intact.

With no clear-cut (heh heh) way to defuse the tensions between the pro- and anti-circer positions, this is one debate that won't be amicably resolved anytime soon.

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