Bioethics Blogs

Autonomy and the Circumcision Wars

Guest Post by Akim McMath

In December of last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its proposed new recommendations on male circumcision.  The verdict?  Circumcision provides major benefits with minimal risks.  These benefits accrue whether circumcision is performed in infancy or later on in life.  Circumcision may even help to stem the HIV epidemic in the United States.  Perhaps you should do something about that foreskin.

The resulting firestorm was swift, fierce, and predictable.  Critics of infant circumcision blasted the CDC, accusing it of trampling the child’s right to bodily integrity.  Defenders of circumcision fired back, extolling the prophylactic virtues of the procedure.  Subtle questions about autonomy were lost in the maelstrom.  Yet these questions lie at the heart of the conflict, as I suggest in a new article.

Let’s look more closely at the debate over circumcision and HIV.  Defenders of circumcision tout studies showing that circumcision reduces female-to-male sexual transmission of HIV.  Critics retort that there exists a more effective and less drastic means of achieving the same end – namely, condoms.  Perhaps, concede the defenders, but many men don’t use condoms consistently and effectively – hence the enduring problem of STIs.  That’s their choice! say the critics.  So? say the defenders.  And so on, ad infinitum.

The foregoing squabble is essentially a disagreement about autonomy.  Critics of infant circumcision are idealists about the child’s future autonomous choices.  They assume that the child will make prudent choices in future, even when he may not.  Assuming prudent condom use, circumcision is unlikely to provide much additional protection against HIV.

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.