Male circumcision: US officials suggest benefits outweigh risks

New draft guidelines in US say male circumcision significantly reduces risk of HIV and other STDs

Circumcision instruments
(Image credit: 2013 Getty Images)

United States health officials have drafted their first ever guidelines on male circumcision suggesting that the benefits outweigh the risks.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national public health institute of America, stops short of recommending circumcision for all male newborns, but points to scientific evidence that supports the procedure.

Jonathan Mermin, director of the National Centre for HIV/AIDS at the CDC, says that male circumcision is associated with a 50 to 60 percent reduction of HIV transmission, as well as a reduction in sexually transmitted infections such as herpes, bacterial vaginosis and the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can cause penile and cervical cancer.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The CDC draft guidelines recommend that parents and uncircumcised male teenagers and adults receive counselling from their doctor to discuss the benefits and risks of the procedure.

The guidelines will be reviewed for more than a month before they are made official, but there is already a backlash from the anti-cutting movement.

Ronald Goldman, executive director of the Circumcision Resource Centre, told the Daily Beast the guidelines were "part of a long historical American cultural and medical bias to attempt to defend this traumatic genital surgery".

Other campaigners took to Twitter to argue that men should choose for themselves whether or not to be circumcised and questioned the medical evidence put forward by the CDC.

The New York Times says that while circumcision may protect men from infection by HIV-positive women, it does not protect women from infection by men, and there is no definitive data that it protects men who have sex with men from infection.

Critics also say the clinical trials cited by the CDC were carried out in sub-Saharan Africa, where heterosexual transmission of HIV is far more common than in the US.

The rate of circumcision in the US is currently in decline, falling from around 68 per cent in 1979 to 58 per cent in the last few years.

Denmark to debate male circumcision ban

26 November

Denmark's parliament will today debate whether male circumcision should be more tightly controlled, days after a found that almost three-quarters of Danes think the procedure should be restricted or banned altogether.

The poll, commissioned by the Danish newspaper Metroxpress, interviewed 1,000 people and found that 74 per cent of respondents think there should be either a full or partial ban on circumcision. Only ten per cent thought that there should be no restrictions

Later today the issue will be debated by politicians, with both the left-wing Red-Green alliance (Ehedslisten) and libertarian party Liberal Alliance advocating some form of ban.

Last year, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution opposing all kinds of ritual circumcision, saying they cast a "moral stain" and "foster hate and racist trends in Europe".

The council's resolution recommended that all 47 member states should attempt to regulate circumcision in some way.

In the UK, approximately one third of men were circumcised before the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948, but rates soon began to fall as the organisation deemed that the operation was not medically necessary and therefore would not be covered. Today, approximately 9 per cent of men in the UK are circumcised, the BBC reports.

The practice of male circumcision is also falling in the US, where rates of circumcision were traditionally been much higher, hovering around 60 per cent for the past two decades.

There is still a great deal of disagreement around the world over the medical impacts of the practice, The Guardian says.

Some urologists, including Dr Charles Flack say that although circumcisions are not necessary, "penile cancer occurs only in uncircumcised males and uncircumcised males have a higher risk of HIV infection than circumcised males".

However, last year the Danish medical authority, Sundhedsstyrelsen, concluded that there was not enough documentation to recommend the practice on medical grounds, but conversely, there is not enough evidence of risk to justify a total ban either.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 circumcisions are performed in Denmark each year, The Independent reports, with Muslim and Jewish boys making up the great majority of patients.

Image removed.

Image removed.


Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.