In defense of foreskins

On Nov. 8, residents of San Francisco, California will be voting on an issue that has raised a number of strong voices and opinions. Since reaching the required 7,100 signatures in May, the November ballot is set to include a proposal for a circumcision ban, which would make it “unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years.”

Anyone found violating this would face up to one year of jail time as well as a $1,000 fine. The only exception to this rule would be for circumstances where circumcision is the last available treatment option in matters relating to the physical health of the individual. Should this ban take effect, young boys would be saved from an unnecessary procedure, which they are incapable of consenting to.

Unsurprisingly, however, this groundbreaking proposal has received a number of objections, all of which can be narrowed down to two main points — health and freedom of religion. Both of these objections provide insufficient reasons for maintaining the status quo and disregard the fact that circumcision, without medical necessity or the individual’s consent, is nothing less than mutilation.

Routine neonatal circumcision was adopted in the United States in the late 19th century as prevention or treatment for a number of health conditions, including everything from mental illness and tuberculosis to excessive masturbation and blindness. In present day, routine circumcision is generally performed for so-called hygienic reasons, with the perception that an uncircumcised penis is an unclean one.

While the uncircumcised penis does indeed require a slightly more thorough cleaning, there is no evidence that proves a circumcised penis is more hygienic than an uncircumcised one. In addition, studies that have been conducted to determine whether an uncircumcised male holds a higher chance of contracting penile cancer and/or urinary tract infections have been inconclusive. The only health benefit to circumcision was found in a 2005 randomized controlled trial in South Africa, where it was found that circumcised men in that area were 60 per cent less likely to contract human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) through heterosexual sex than uncircumcised men, results which have been replicated in similar trials conducted in Kenya and Uganda.

These trials only serve to show the potential benefit of circumcision in sub-Saharan African, where there are high rates of heterosexual transmission of HIV, partially as a result of low condom use, among many other causes. In industrialized countries, such as the United States, where HIV is not nearly as prevalent and sexual education and birth control are widely and easily available, the justification for circumcision in terms of health benefits simply does not hold.

The other objection to the ban argues that a ban on circumcision would be a violation of the first amendment of the United States Constitution, which protects the right to freedom of religion from government interference.

Circumcision has a long religious history, specifically with Jewish and Muslim individuals. As a result, some have come to view the ban as a direct attack on their right to freedom of religion, fearing that a circumcision ban is just the first step in an upcoming attack on their religious practices as a whole.

What these individuals fail to realize is that, rather than being an attack on religious practices, it is a step forward in recognizing an individual’s right to his own body. A ban recognizes that a male should be entitled to protection from harmful religious traditions and unnecessary medical practices he cannot consent to. It is also an acknowledgement that using the argument that a practice is traditional, as the sole means of defending a practice, is invalid and does not make it right.

In the last hundred years, male circumcision in the United States has become the norm. It is seen as a harmless, routine procedure as well as an affirmation of “manhood.” However, it is a mind-boggling double standard that the removal of sensitive tissue in females is regarded as atrocious, while the removal of the similar tissue in males is viewed as customary. This ban is not the result of overbearing government attempting to weasel its way into the private lives of individuals, but rather one which acknowledges that no one should be subjected to harmful and unnecessary medical procedures without their consent, regardless of tradition.