Snip snap – Why more than half of newborn boys in America are circumcised
Jun 18th 2016 Economist
Sexual, health and aesthetic norms do not vary much across the West. Male circumcision is an exception. Over half of American boys are snipped, compared with 2-3% in Finland and Britain. The procedure is justified in America on grounds given little credence in Europe: that it makes genitals cleaner, nicer-looking and more socially acceptable.
Circumcision first became popular in the late 19th century as a supposed cure for masturbation—and health problems from headaches to tuberculosis. After the second world war it became associated in America with hygiene and wealth; in other rich countries governments (which paid for most health care) were unconvinced of its merits.
Over 80% of American men are circumcised. Parents worry that uncircumcised boys will be teased in the changing rooms; fathers often want their sons to look the same as them “down there”. Many parents think foreskins are hard to clean, says Georganne Chapin of Intact America, a group lobbying against infant circumcision. But if men can become astrophysicists or master carpenters, she says, surely they can learn to wash?
American doctors routinely ask new mothers whether they want their sons circumcised before they go home. Insurers often pay, so providers have an incentive to promote it. Parents who want to decide on rational grounds get little help. The American Academy of Paediatrics says the benefits “outweigh the risks” but also that they are too low to justify routine circumcision. Most parents go with the flow.
European doctors’ associations take a different line. The Nordic ones insist that there are no health benefits for young boys. The Royal Dutch Medical Association urges a “strong policy of deterrence”; it stops short of recommending a ban only for fear of driving circumcision for religious reasons underground.
On the whole, European countries view the snip as an infringement on the child’s bodily integrity that cannot be justified on medical grounds. It is true that circumcision can help prevent some sexually transmitted infections—but the evidence is from African countries where HIV/AIDS is common. Other infections can be fought in other ways, for example with vaccines or antibiotics. America puts parents’ wishes first—even if future generations may find their reasons as odd as the Victorians’ desire to check “excessive lust”.