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When we posted on the proposed circumcision ban in San Francisco, 1,000+ of you, our readers, were very invested in the circumcision debate. You voted, you debated and you left comments – all about circumcision. Most readers expressed passionate dedication either for or against circumcision. Still, some readers noted that more information about the pros and cons of circumcision would be useful, so now let’s take a look at both sides of the circumcision debate.

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What Families Say About Circumcision

Circumcision is a highly personal issue and some families base their decision to circumcise or not to circumcise on personal conviction or opinion versus research. You hear many arguments both for and against circumcision from all kinds of families. Some of the non-research based reasons why people do or don’t choose to circumcise include:

  • Parents want their son to look like dad. For example, if dad was circumcised, a family might also circumcise their son.
  • Some families believe that circumcised penises are easier to clean.
  • Many families don’t circumcise simply because it’s “Not natural” – basically, why cut any body part off if you were born with it?
  • In the United States, the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) on anyone younger than 18 years of age is illegal, mandated by federal law. FGC is a felony punishable by fines or up to a 5-year prison term. Many argue that if this is the law for females, why isn’t male genital cutting also against the law.
  • Some families still circumcise for religious reasons, although, this is a sub-debate among circumcision supporters and non-supporters. Still, circumcision is common enough within the Jewish and Islamic faith, and some families do choose circumcision because they feel it’s aligned with their religious views.
  • Sometimes families hear that circumcision will enhance or detract from sexual pleasure for men and/or their partners. This is a mostly non-evidence based reason to circumcise or not, because quantifying sexual happiness, for any reason, circumcision included, is sketchy at best.

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What Research Says About the PROS of Circumcision

Very little research supports routine circumcision. However, in some cases, there is research that supports circumcision for some boys. Research based examples of why parents might circumcise include the following.   

  • Circumcision may help prevent balanitis, an infection related to the inflammation of the glans penis. According to research, balanitis is less common in men who have been circumcised, but other research notes that this may be due to poor hygiene on the part of the man.
  • Circumcision may help prevent phimosis. Phimosis is when the foreskin cannot be retracted and it’s extremely rare. Only about 1% of males experience this problem. Most babies naturally don’t have a fully retractable foreskin until they’re older, so phimosis is not a suggested medical reason to circumcise a baby boy.
  • Inconclusive research notes that cancer prevention of both the penis and of the cervix for women who have circumcised partners is one pro of circumcision. Research on this issue goes back and fourth with most evidence pointing to other tactics for cancer prevention before circumcision. In fact the American Cancer Society notes that practicing safe sex and not smoking are better ways to avoid penile cancer than getting circumcised.
  • The Mayo Clinic notes that circumcised baby boys have a decreased risk of contracting urinary infections during the early years, stating, “The risk of urinary tract infections in the first year is low, but these infections may be up to 10 times as common in uncircumcised baby boys.” In some cases, it’s been shown that severe urinary tract infections contracted early in life may lead to kidney problems later on.
  • By far, the most widely researched pro of circumcision is sexually transmitted disease prevention. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that “There is compelling evidence that male circumcision reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.” Some research notes that circumcision produces large changes in the penis’s microbiome, leading to reduced risks of sexually transmitted diseases. The WHO officially says that circumcision should be part of a comprehensive HIV prevention package. Still, research on this issue is ongoing, highly debated and to many people, not a sufficient reason to circumcise. Especially when other, non-surgical, educational-based tactics in the United States may help decrease sexually transmitted diseases as well.

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What Research Says About the CONS of Circumcision

  • The Mayo Clinic, and other various health organizations, note the following risks of circumcision: surgical pain, side effects related to anesthesia, excessive bleeding, infection, plus numerous problems related to the foreskin not healing properly.
  • In rare cases, the glans on a circumcised penis can become irritated. This can cause the penis opening to become too small, which in turn may lead to urinary problems that can require surgery to correct.
  • Scarring of the penis from infection or surgical error is a risk factor, in some cases, serious, life-threatening bacterial infections have resulted due to circumcision. When infections do arise, a baby may be subject to equally dangerous, and sometimes excessive antibiotics at a young age.
  • Although very rarely documented there are cases of baby penises being cut incorrectly and unnecessary bleeding and cosmetic issues may arise.

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Deciding Where You Stand

Some parents do base their decision to circumcise or not, on faulty research. For example, one study claiming that more than 100 boys die annually due to circumcision complication made the rounds last year. While sure, this could be true, it also could not be true. We don’t know for sure because the report was based on estimates not science, and this was not a peer-reviewed study. In fact, it was written by International Coalition for Genital Integrity (ICGI) director Dan Bollinger. When a “study” is written by dedicated supporters or non-supporters of  circumcision and the research is not peer-reviewed, there’s a clear bias. When looking for information about circumcision, make sure that you look for real peer-reviewed research. Always check out the authors to make sure they’re legit, unbiased and not closely aligned with one side or the other. When making such an important decision it’s best to be pro-science and pro-actual facts.

When it comes to making a final decision, it can be hard for parents, because very few studies have actually looked at the real risk-benefit debate of circumcision and weighed the pros and cons against each other. One such study did attempt to weigh all the circumcision pros and cons and found that, “The vast majority of children will gain no medical benefit nor suffer any complication as a result of circumcision.” Researchers on this specific study looked at 354,297 children and found that while some experienced complications and some experienced benefits, neither side outweighed the other. The end result is that the decision to circumcise or not rests largely upon parent opinion and emotion, not substantial comparison research.

Where do you stand on the circumcision debate?