Bioethics Blogs

Penile transplants and ritual male circumcision in Africa

It should not be going to too far out on a limb to say that ritual male circumcision is not, and never has been meant to be, a medical intervention. Certainly in sub-Saharan Africa, where it has generally been understood as part of a larger rite of passage from boyhood to manhood, questions of safety, hygiene, pain relief or psychological trauma are typically not concerns central to the ritual. If they were, the use of unsterile instruments by non-surgeons on the un-anesthetized would have led to the disappearance of the practice long ago. The ritual is about risk, not safety; it is about testing an initiate’s response to fear, not making the youth feel comfy. And what is more fearful that the threat of a sharp instrument being brought to bear on your private bits? One can be appalled by the practice, but you have to at least acknowledge that it is not an attempt to do the same thing as medical circumcision, except more primatively and with higher complication rates. It has unsafe practices partly because it serves a whole other purpose.

Nevertheless, it is hard to say that penile amputation or death are just the price you pay for ritual male circumcision, and those who think otherwise should just man up. Are you culturally ignorant if you care about and want to protect those who are harmed by traditional circumcision? Are you culturally insensitive if you want to change the practice to reduce harm to persons? One interesting development related to the issue has been the announcement of the first penis transplant.

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.