Male circumcision is the removal by cutting of the foreskin from the penis. The usefulness, necessity and desirability of this procedure has been hotly debated. While circumcision is sometimes performed to relieve foreskin tightness (i.e., phimosis), it is also a cultural and religious practice. Female circumcision is even more contentious, as it involves more radical and invasive surgery, and usually involves an attempt to reduce sexual pleasure. For these reasons, the term circumcision usually refers to the procedure performed on males, while female genital modification or removal is often called female genital mutilation or female genital manipulation.
For Jews, circumcision is a commandment in the Torah. For Muslims, it is widely practiced although the Qur'an does not mandate it. In parts of Africa, traditional rites have included circumcision for males and females as rites of passage, a practice defended as acceptable cultural difference by some, and deemed repugnant by others.
Those who oppose routine circumcision point out that it is extremely painful for a child to go through, is done without their consent, can adversely affect sexual pleasure (Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, an early advocate for routine medical circumcision, argued that circumcision would reduce masturbation), can sometimes have psychological and emotional risks later in life, and can possibly introduce infections. They also argue the performing of medically unnecessary surgery on children is an infringement on their autonomy and even possibly their human rights. Because of the heavy emphasis placed on circumcision, attempts to regulate or ban it have often been painted as anti-religious or anti-Semitic. In 2012, a German court ruled under-age circumcision for non-medical reasons illegal. This may be overturned by a higher court or by legislation.
Those who support circumcision state that it does have health benefits: twentieth century studies suggested that the sexual partners of circumcised men were less likely to contract cervical cancer, and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has stated that HIV acquisition from penile-vaginal intercourse is significantly reduced among those who are circumcised. Studies in South Africa, Kenya and Uganda, where HIV rates are high, appeared to show a benefit, but these studies were halted early.
Opponents of circumcision argue that the problem with circumcision as a solution to HIV/AIDS point to the 'false sense of safety' that circumcision may bring to some HIV-infected men, and also argue that in certain countries in Africa where circumcision is being promoted as one way of reducing HIV transmission, there is a problem with the instruments used for circumcision being a transmission vector for the virus. Some anti-circumcision advocates also argue the scientific studies of HIV transmission and circumcision are open to doubt and argue that circumcision is a high risk, untested solution compared to the well-tested solutions to HIV transmission like the ABC strategy ('Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms') and targetted education programmes at groups at a high risk of transmission.
Many also state that they support circumcision as a cultural practice - in the United States, although dropping in the 1990s, circumcision has been routinely high - in the seventy-to-eighty percent range - for most of the twentieth century. Some fear that not getting a child circumcised will leave him as an outsider - teased in the locker-room, or with sexual partners preferring the look and feel of a circumcised rather than uncircumcised organ.
The World Health Organization state that 30% of men are circumcised, the vast majority of those being Muslims. In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service does not provide circumcision for non-medical reasons.
- PLoS Medicine: 'Randomized, Controlled Intervention Trial of Male Circumcision for Reduction of HIV Infection Risk: The ANRS 1265 Trial'.
- The Lancet: 'Male circumcision for HIV prevention in young men in Kisumu, Kenya: a randomised controlled trial'.
- The Lancet: 'Male circumcision for HIV prevention in men in Rakai, Uganda: a randomised trial'.
- New Scientist: 'Circumcision: To cut or not to cut? '. 16th July 2008.
- National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), Circumcision and AIDS