It’s just that the male foreskin is the only part that American science has actually researched and sought justification for excising in infancy,* despite the fact that several other non-essential body parts have just as much, if not more, potential for infection and disease.
And why is this? Because the unaltered male genitalia are terribly prone to infection and disease? No, quite the opposite, actually, when compared to the unaltered female genitalia. Because intact little boys can’t seem to keep themselves clean? Nope, that’s nursery rhyme science–something about frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. The truth is that the only little boys aged 0 – 5 years old who don’t have their foreskins are North American or Jewish (the largest single group of circumcised males, Muslims, are generally not circumcised until after the age of 5), and the other 95% of little boys worldwide don’t seem to have any trouble keeping themselves clean. And again, studies indicate that it’s actually little girls who more commonly have issues in that area. So much for sugar and spice and everything nice. Is it because we observe that men with foreskins hate that tender, erogenous, nerve-rich fold of skin at the end of their member? No, we simply do not observe European, Japanese, Chinese, or South American men—the majority of whom live and die with their foreskins—pursuing circumcision in adulthood or showing any consistent pattern of elevated infection rates compared to men in similarly-developed nations without their foreskins that would indicate that this part is a nuisance or hazard to them.
So why has the foreskin, among all the non-essential body parts that could be linked up with various infections and disease, been the only part that we’ve researched the “health benefits” of cutting off at birth? Answer: because we were already doing it. It’s simply historical accident.
Let’s stop and think about circumcision as a health measure for a minute. Quite frankly, epidemiologically-speaking, it’s quite bizarre that anyone would study genital cutting for “health benefits” in an American context, given that the vast majority of individuals in similarly-developed nations possess all of their genitalia and do not show any consistent pattern of higher rates of infection or disease involving the genitalia than those with altered genitalia.
And it is even more baffling, epidemiologically-speaking, that American science has seen fit to study altering the male genitalia and not the female genitalia, which have more folds, more exposed mucosal tissue, and are more prone to UTIs, yeast infections, odor, smegma, HPV, most STIs from vaginal intercourse, HIV from vaginal intercourse, and hygiene issues than their male counterpart.
But historically-culturally speaking, it’s not bizarre at all. A good percentage of American males were already being circumcised in infancy and childhood for societal-moral reasons (read: to curb male sexuality) by the time modern profit-driven American medicine was ramping up in the 20th century, and so it made sense that science would devote its resources to the study of its “health benefits,” given how common and profitable the practice had become. It’s quite strange to study cutting off a part of the body as a preventative health measure, but if you’re already cutting that part off, the association of health benefits with the act couldn’t be more welcomed and believed without question by the masses who were already doing it in the first place.
Female circumcision (along with prophylactically cutting off any body part at birth except the foreskin), of course, never caught on that well in the West, and so it’s never been studied in a sanitary, medical, American context rather than an unsanitary African context performed with shared rusty razor blades, which, by the way, is the context that groups such as the WHO envision in their claims that female circumcision causes a whole litany of health maladies, as one would expect when a child’s genitals are cut open in a small mud hut with unwashed tools. But researching the excision of female genital tissue in the same sanitary conditions in which America examines and performs male circumcision? It’s never been done, despite the female genitalia’s greater amount of moist folds of skin and exposed mucosal tissue as well as elevated risk of infection compared to the male genitalia.
Given this fact pattern, it’s evident that the fact that male circumcision has been researched extensively in an American context while female circumcision (or any other excision of normal, healthy, non-essential tissue from a child’s body) has not been similarly researched is due not to the inherent medical merits of male circumcision or to some greater propensity of the intact male genitalia to infection than these other body parts but rather to the historical accident that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries male circumcision caught on in the United States for societal-moral reasons and female circumcision did not.
If the excision of female genital tissue (or any other non-foreskin body part) had similarly caught on, we would in all likelihood see American science linking that body part to all sorts of infections and diseases as well, wrapping the possibilities in medical jargon, continuing on an endless spiral of pros and cons, citing this study over here and that one over there, and creating a seemingly valid yet incredibly sophistic argument for giving parents a “choice” to elect to have that part routinely amputated from their child’s body at birth.** It really could have been any non-essential body part that suffered such a fate: earlobes to reduce the risk of skin cancer, female genital folds to reduce the risk of labial adhesions and attendant UTIs and who knows what else (since it’s never been researched), the fourth and fifth toes to reduce the risk of fungal infection, etc.
But, of course, we readily dismiss researching such proposals as routine earlobe amputation or labiaplasty or toe amputation for infants and children as ludicrous if not horrific, despite the fact that such operations at birth could quite possibly reduce the child’s risk of infection and disease. This proves that there exists some disconnect in our reasoning, a mystical irrationality clouding our minds, when the same thinking is applied to foreskins and routine circumcision.** And why is this? Historical accident. We were already cutting off foreskins rather than earlobes or labia or toes and so that was the body part that we chose to study the supposed health benefits of excising–something we would never consider doing with any other normal, natural, healthy, permanently-attached portion of a child’s body.
But science should not be dictated by historical accident. The medical profession is supposed to be based on scientific reasoning and logic and consistency. Therefore, the American medical establishment, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is challenged to view the foreskin in the same way that it views other non-essential body parts and tissues such as earlobes and female genital folds and toes–which are all potential infection and disease sites–and not as the sole exception to the general rule of respect afforded to the human body in its naturally-occurring state.
Be honest, America, and be done with this inconsistent analysis. Stop the madness.
*And adulthood, for that matter, especially for HIV prevention, but since the vast majority of circumcised American men were circumcised in infancy, that is our focus. Nevertheless, the line of thinking presented above is just as valid even if the topic is adult circumcision.
**Much thanks to Rosemary Romberg, author of Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma, for much of the language used in these two sentences.