Bioethics Blogs

Tradition vs individual rights: the current debate on circumcision

A protest against circumcision in the United States, where the debate about circumcision is still raging. sigmaration/Flickr

Non-therapeutic circumcision of male infants and boys has always been a controversial issue – and never has opinion been more polarised.

In the United States, medical authorities have just overturned 40 years of sound science-based policy by deciding that the health benefits of circumcision — while not great enough to recommend the procedure as a routine — are sufficient to allow parental choice in the matter and coverage by medical insurance plans.

This move has been heavily criticised by medical ethicists in both the United States and abroad. They fault the new policy not only for downplaying the risks and complications of the procedure, but also for failing to take into account basic principles from bioethics as well as human rights.

The rest of the world has moved on. In Europe and elsewhere, the question is no longer about whether there are any good “medical” justifications for routine circumcision — the consensus is that there are not. Instead, it’s about the much thornier issue of cultural and religious rationales.

In Germany, a court recently found that non-medically-indicated circumcision constitutes bodily harm and is thus unlawful. In Australia, the Tasmania Law Reform Institute has recommended that it be legally prohibited in most cases, with limited exemptions for religious practice.

In Helsinki, an international conference heard many distinguished speakers criticise unnecessary genital surgeries of all types, whether performed for medical or cultural reasons, and whether on boys, girls or intersex children.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.