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Routine Circumcision of Male Minors:
Human Rights Implications
Presented 4 October 1996 at Roundtable Discussion: Emerging Issues in Health & Human Rights
Second International Conference on Health & Human Rights - Harvard University, 3-5 October 1996
Desmond Morris, author of
Babywatching, once wrote:
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The commonest form of assault the sexual organs have suffered is male and female circumcision. Although it is a piece of deliberate wounding of children by adults, it has always been done with the best of intentions."
With these good intentions, each year over 15 million children globally are subjected to these so-called circumcisions. The severity and the rationalizations for altering children's healthy genitals differ from circumciser to circumciser, between genders and from culture to culture. For male minors, whether the reason is tribal, religious or alleged medical prophylaxis, circumcision without their consent raises serious human rights concerns. In some religious circles, increasing numbers of Jews and Moslems are asserting that even religion cannot justify these violations. My focus today, however, is to share new information that is emerging on this issue and to clarify how the medical practice of routine circumcision violates human rights of the boy-child.
I'm going to focus right now on just five of circumcision's many relevant human rights issues, these being security of the person, physical integrity, physical and mental health, self-determination and Article 24.3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I want to stress that these are universal rights that take affect the moment we leave the womb.
ROUTINE CIRCUMCISION VIOLATES THE HUMAN RIGHT TO SECURITY OF PERSON
It was proved scientifically in the 1980s that babies being circumcised feel pain acutely. Unlike adults being circumcised, the vast majority of infants do not receive anesthesia. We allow ourselves to do to a boy-child, what we would abhor if done to any other class of unconsenting human. Put yourself in the baby's place. First, you are strapped to a board called a Circumstraint. Then your healthy genital tissue is cut into and amputated. Babies often pass out from the pain. But for the unlucky majority who remain conscious, these are just a few seconds of the unearthly sounds that continue throughout this quarter hour ordeal [recorded screams played].
The U.S., where almost 98% of infant circumcisions are done for non-religious reasons, is the last nation in the world to continue subjecting the majority of its male infants to this obsolete abuse of medicine. The national rate is 60%. That's over 1.25 million babies a year, more than 3,300 boy children a day, one infant every 26 seconds.
But anesthesia is not the answer, because...
ROUTINE CIRCUMCISION VIOLATES THE HUMAN RIGHT TO PHYSICAL INTEGRITY
The prepuce is not vestigial or redundant skin. It is normal, functioning sexual tissue. New anatomical research published in the British Journal of Urology reveals that the:
Preputial functions are detailed in tonight's film, Whose Body, Whose Rights?, but in brief, they involve maintaining the glans (or penile head), as the internal organ that nature designed both it, and the female clitoris, to be. It also preserves the sexual sensitivity of the glans penis, supplies the skin necessary for a full and comfortable erection, and serves as a stimulation and lubrication mechanism that enhances the sexual well-being of both the male and the female.
But this is not just about sex.
ROUTINE CIRCUMCISION VIOLATES THE HUMAN RIGHT TO PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH
When you cut into a healthy person's body, there are risks that compromise that health. Most of these neonatal complications can be immediately apparent. Some don't manifest until later, with other complications becoming more prominent and troublesome in adulthood. These long-term consequences may be physical, sexual or psychological, which many circumcised males do not easily acknowledge or report. These adverse outcomes have not been investigated by the medical community.
We do know, however, the results of a 1993 NGO (non-governmental organization) survey of over 300 circumcised men, published in a report titled Awakenings, found circumcised respondents suffered a wide range of consequences from this surgery they did not choose. These included: progressive sensitivity loss in the glans, pain and bleeding upon erection, sexual dysfunctions, prominent scarring, various physical deformities, feelings of violation and inferiority to intact men, and depression, rage and betrayal over what was done to them. Many authors from the men's movement are now examining the role of genital mutilation in larger issues of men's health and patterns of male violence.
ROUTINE CIRCUMCISION ALSO VIOLATES THE HUMAN RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION
When you cut into someone's healthy body without their consent, you compromise their human right to choose what is best for their well-being. From a human rights perspective, before imposing what we think is good on another person, even our own children, we must take into account the effect of that intervention on their human rights. Especially since infant circumcision is an elective, non-essential, and controversial intervention that contravenes various human rights of the child, it should not be undertaken until the child is old enough to make his own choice.
Because of the adverse impact of infant circumcision on male physical integrity, physical and mental health, and self-determination, the National Organization of Restoring Men formed in 1990 to offer moral and technical support for non-surgical skin expansion to help men regain their physical integrity. The very existence of this group demonstrates that circumcised men are becoming aware that they have been harmed and violated and are doing something about it.
ROUTINE CIRCUMCISION ALSO VIOLATES THE CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD
Article 24.3 of the Convention calls for the abolition of "traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children." To apply this we have to ask: Is circumcision beneficial or prejudicial to health, and, is it a traditional practice?
Health benefits alleged by some studies suggest infant circumcision as prophylaxis against urinary tract infections, male and female genital cancers, sexually transmitted diseases, and now AIDS. These studies are controversial because most are retrospective, methodologically flawed, conflicting, inconclusive and skewed by cultural, religious and financial influences. For every problem circumcision is alleged to prevent, there are effective alternative methods of non-surgical prophylaxis and treatment that respect children's bodily integrity.
Is circumcision healthy? The medical community has consistently failed to prove conclusively and unequivocally that infant circumcision carries any significant health advantage over the intact state for the vast majority of males. Is circumcision prejudicial to health? The emerging evidence presented earlier substantiates that the answer is yes.
Is this a traditional practice? Ask any doctor who's tried to convince parents who still want their son circumcised even after he's explained there are no medical benefits. Look at studies about the parental decision making process on circumcision. They all confirm this is a social tradition. More than medical fears, parents have fears about family or social conformity.
This tradition in the U.S. was started 100 years ago by physicians trying to control the sexuality of children. They documented a whole host of physical and mental problems associated with masturbation. The cure was various forms of male and female circumcision. Then, earlier in this century, a military tradition of circumcising soldiers took hold that created several generations of circumcised fathers, who then began family traditions of circumcising their sons. Now we have an American medical tradition of routine circumcision that has spawned a profitable circumcision industry catering to this tradition. It involves physicians, hospitals, health insurers, pharmaceutical companies, equipment suppliers - and now even bio-tissue companies that harvest discarded foreskins to produce artificial skin for burn victims and for testing cosmetics. These male newborns have become involuntary organ donors.
SO HOW DO WE EFFECT CHANGE?
First, we need overcome our own cultural biases that advocate for protecting the bodily integrity of the girl-child but ignore the bodily integrity of the boy-child. To change religious or tribal customs that do not respect that integrity, advocates for change within those cultures will need our support. To change medical practices that do not respect these rights, we must understand that the U.S. tradition of forced male genital conformity was instituted and is perpetuated by the medical community. Physicians created the social demand for this practice and it's the duty of physicians to deconstruct the mythology perpetuating it. As advocates for human rights, we must call physicians to conscience on the human rights issues.
To this end, the Fourth International Symposium on Sexual Mutilations convened this last summer in Switzerland with representatives present from the World Health Organization and Amnesty International. It was the first time in the history of the movement against sexual mutilation that circumcised women and circumcised men discussed common efforts to protect children from these violative traditions.
Many circumcised women at the symposium agreed that male genital mutilation must also be eradicated. Although their public statements have been limited to female genital mutilation, their words also call us to conscience about protecting the genital integrity of the boy-child. Dr. Nahid Toubia wrote recently:
The unnecessary removal of a functioning body organ in the name of tradition, custom or any other non-disease related cause should never be acceptable to the health profession. All childhood circumcisions are violations of human rights and a breach of the fundamental code of medical ethics. It is the moral duty of educated professionals to protect the health and rights of those with little or no social power to protect themselves."
Educated professionals are advocating for the health and human rights of the boy-child; namely, Doctors Opposing Circumcision, and Nurses for the Rights of the Child.
In closing, I'd like to again invite you to tonight's screening of Whose Body, Whose Rights? and to express my hope that together we can awaken the adult world to see even the tiniest baby as a full person, deserving of all human rights, respect and dignity. From the moment we leave the womb, the flame of human rights is ignited and needs to be protected.
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Last updated: 28 February, 2012
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