The New York Times reports that officials at the Centers for Disease Control are likely to recommend that infant boys be routinely circumcised, in an effort to lower HIV rates.
The topic is a delicate one that has already generated controversy, even though a formal draft of the proposed recommendations, due out from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by the end of the year, has yet to be released.
Experts are also considering whether the surgery should be offered to adult heterosexual men whose sexual practices put them at high risk of infection. But they acknowledge that a circumcision drive in the United States would be unlikely to have a drastic impact: the procedure does not seem to protect those at greatest risk here, men who have sex with men.
This strikes me as wrong on so many counts. The CDC admits that universal circumcision will offer only a marginal benefit. That minor benefit in preventing heterosexual transmission would be seen only 15 to 20 years from now (unless we assume today’s baby boys will be exceptionally precocious, sexually). If adult men were to seek circumcision in large numbers, there might be a short-term impact on transmission. But if the CDC thinks adult men will clamor to be cut, I’ve got a bridge they might like to buy, too.
The CDC is relying on an African study that showed a sharp drop in heterosexual transmission of HIV in men who were circumcised as adults. However, no study has shown a similar benefit in highly deveoped countries.
Circumcision offers at best false security. It won’t allow anyone to throw away the condoms. Bioethicist Alice Dreger explains:
To state the obvious, circumcision doesn’t prevent HIV infection. A circumcised penis may be less effective at transmitting HIV, but it can still manage it. Anyone who thinks they are protecting their son from HIV by preemptive circumcision probably should also consider castration, since that significantly lowers the libido, and heaven knows libido is a serious risk factor for sexually transmitted diseases. Or you might just consider good sex education.
Of course, too many Americans seem to still think comprehensive sex ed is morally and physically dangerous. Far better to expose babies to the risks of circumcision! (The risks are relatively rare, but they include possible wounds to the penis. Also, the official tally of “risk” doesn’t take into account possible loss of pleasure and sensation.)
By the same logic, the CDC might also recommend hysterectomy to all women who’ve finished childbearing and prophyactic mastectomy to all women who don’t plan to breastfeed in the future. You’d prevent thousands upon thousands of cancers.
The real issue here, though, is informed consent. Babies can’t consent. When I gave birth to my two boys, I thought it would be presumptuous and immoral for their father and me to make an irrevocable decision about their anatomy. I also didn’t want their arrival in this world to be marked by avoidable pain. Yes, parents have to make medical decisions on behalf of their children all the time, but very few of them involve amputating part of the body for uncertain gain in the distant future.
And one more thing: Although the New York Times article appeared in yesterday’s edition, none of the many feminist blogs I follow has mentioned this story; I found it via a brief mention by Hanna Rosin who’s guest blogging at The Daily Dish. I’m a bit perplexed that the feminist blogosphere hasn’t picked it up. This is not a question of “men’s rights.” It’s an issue for feminist parents, and in fact for anyone who believes in bodily integrity and autonomy. It’s a matter of basic human rights.