A couple of years ago Brian Morris drew a certain amount of attention to himself with the claim that the benefits of circumcision outweighed the risks by 100 to 1. At the time child health authorities ridiculed the claim as scientifically baseless, exaggerated, implausible, frankly preposterous and just crazy. His additional suggestion that circumcision was just like vaccination and should be compulsory was described as the dumbest idea ever. Undeterred by these harsh words, our fearless anti-foreskin warrior has now published a further article in which he claims that the benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks by 200 to 1, and that 50 per cent of all uncircumcised men will experience medical problems as a direct result of their regrettable genital anatomy.
This means that the danger to health posed by the foreskin has doubled in only 2 years, and should imply that boys and men all over the world (but especially in Europe, Britain and Australia) should be swarming into hospital emergency departments with crippling foreskin-related diseases. If the risk continues to soar at this rate, it will not be long before uncircumcised men are dropping like flies in the street. The fact that none of this is happening, however, does lend a certain air of unreality to Professor Morris’s alarmism, and perhaps explains the fact that, while his earlier (2014) claim met with ridicule and refutation, his latest anathema against the foreskin has left health authorities dumbfounded and speechless with amazement.
The 100 to 1 claim was made in a respectable journal as an aside to an article that was really a speculation on the possible effects of the American Academy of Pediatrics 2012 circumcision policy on United States circumcision incidence. It is noteworthy that Professor Morris’s 200 to 1 claim appears in the very obscure Chinese-based World Journal of Clinical Pediatrics. Despite its grandiose title, this is a recently established, low-ranking organ that was included in Beale’s list of predatory open access publishers. It had, in fact, already been the target of a speeding ticket from Retraction Watch for dodgy publication practices – in this case, failure to ensure objective peer review. Still, one can’t blame Morris for that: if you are going to make claims as outlandish as those made by him and his coterie at the Circumcision Academy of Australia it is not surprising that you have to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
Current laws against female genital mutilation are both sexist and racist. This is the contention of a powerful article by Arianne Shahvisi, who argues that the law is racist insofar as it infantilises adult women from non-Western cultures by denying them the right to seek genital modification if they desire it, and also sexist because it ignores boys and gives them no protection against circumcision, whether they want it or not. As she writes in the international journal Clinical Ethics, despite its good intentions, the law in most Western countries is “marred with sexism and racism, since the legislation devalues the consent capacities of racialised adult women, whilst the lack of legislation around male circumcision amounts to a failure to protect the bodies of male children.” The author goes onto discuss the parallels between male and female genital cutting and to argue that there is no valid reason for regarding them as radically different: “Both are performed on the healthy, protective, erogenous tissue of children who cannot consent. Neither has any proven health benefit, while both have some associated risk, and carry implications for later sexual potential.”
Shahvisi argues that the total ban on female genital cutting, even for competent adults, and the open slather of circumcision of male infants and boys, are inconsistent with the basic principles of medical ethics as formulated by Beauchamp and Childress – autonomy, non-malevolence, benevolence and justice: “Respect for autonomy rules that patients who have capacity must have their autonomy respected provided they have been adequately informed of risks; beneficence demands that patient safety and wellbeing be prioritised, in full consideration of long-term risks and outcomes; non-maleficence urges that clinicians minimise harm, whether short-term or long-term; considerations of justice require that benefits, risks and costs are distributed equitably, and that medically equivalent patients are treated in equivalent ways.” She goes on to suggest that “a clinician considering the four principles of medical ethics would undoubtedly maintain the view that no child may have non-therapeutic modifications made to her/his body, especially those that are irreversible (i.e. involving tissue damage/removal).
In conclusion the author proposes that the existing laws against female genital mutilation “be extended to include all forms of nontherapeutic genital surgery for all children. A ‘genital mutilation act’, dovetailing with broader child protection legislation, could apply to the bodies of all those below the age of consent, including: FGM, male circumcision, and even non-therapeutic intersex genital surgeries.”
Arianne Shahvisi. Why UK doctors should be troubled by female genital mutilation legislation. Clinical Ethics, online first, 15 December 2016.
Note: Shahvisi is referring to the law in Britain, but Australian laws against FGM (part of the Crimes Act in each State) similarly make it illegal to perform genital modification surgery on adult women even if she consents, unless deemed medically necessary. This qualification had the unintended effect of allowing Graeme Reeves, “the butcher of Bega”, to escape conviction at his first trial for excising a woman’s clitoris and labia. (See full account here.)
For a discussion of the law against FGM in Australia, see Christine Mason, Exorcising Excision: Medico-Legal Issues Arising From Male and Female Genital Surgery in Australia.
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