Argument: Ideologies drive false medical justifications for circumcision

Issue Report: Infant male circumcision


Paul M. Fleiss, MD. “The Case Against Circumcision”. Mothering. Winter 1997 – Circumcision started in America during the masturbation hysteria of the Victorian Era, when a few American doctors circumcised boys to punish them for masturbating. Victorian doctors knew very well that circumcision denudes, desensitizes, and disables the penis. Nevertheless, they were soon claiming that circumcision cured epilepsy, convulsions, paralysis, elephantiasis, tuberculosis, eczema, bed-wetting, hip-joint disease, fecal incontinence, rectal prolapse, wet dreams, hernia, headaches, nervousness, hysteria, poor eyesight, idiocy, mental retardation, and insanity.

In fact, no procedure in the history of medicine has been claimed to cure and prevent more diseases than circumcision. As late as the 1970s, leading American medical textbooks still advocated routine circumcision as a way to prevent masturbation.5 The antisexual motivations behind an operation that entails cutting off part of the penis are obvious.

The radical practice of routinely circumcising babies did not begin until the Cold War era. This institutionalization of what amounted to compulsory circumcision was part of the same movement that pathologized and medicalized birth and actively discouraged breastfeeding. Private-sector, corporate-run hospitals institutionalized routine circumcision without ever consulting the American people. There was no public debate or referendum. It was only in the 1970s that a series of lawsuits forced hospitals to obtain parental consent to perform this contraindicated but highly profitable surgery. Circumcisers responded by inventing new “medical” reasons for circumcision in an attempt to scare parents into consenting.

Today the reasons given for circumcision have been updated to play on contemporary fears and anxieties; but one day they, too, will be considered irrational. Now that such current excuses as the claim that this procedure prevents cancer and sexually transmitted diseases have been thoroughly discredited, circumcisers will undoubtedly invent new ones. But if circumcisers were really motivated by purely medical considerations, the procedure would have died out long ago, along with leeching, skull-drilling, and castration. The fact that it has not suggests that the compulsion to circumcise came first, the “reasons,” later.

“Is Non-Therapeutic Circumcision Ethical?”. National Organization of Circumcision Information. Opposing Views – Routine circumcision gained popularity in English-speaking countries during the Victorian era, supposedly to reduce the incidence of masturbation, which was mistakenly believed to cause disease. While the strategy failed, recognition of the sexual importance of the foreskin was made clear. Unfortunately, what did work, from that disingenuous introduction into Western medicine onward, was that circumcision became the miracle treatment for the dreaded disease of the day. None of the supposed benefits of circumcision has withstood scientific scrutiny, but that didn’t stop the process whereby, when one justification was disproved, another was adopted to take its place.

While its origins have been lost in antiquity, we know circumcision was introduced into Western medicine during the mid-1800s to prevent masturbation. Since then, a host of “medical reasons” have been used to justify a practice most of the world has never considered or has long abandoned. The history of the medicalization of circumcision is astonishing:

  • 1832 Dr. C-F Lallemand circumcises a patient to cure him of nocturnal emissions.
  • 1845 Dr. Edward Dixon declares that circumcision cures and prevents masturbation.
  • 1855 Dr. Jonathan Hutchinson publishes his theory that circumcision prevents syphilis.
  • 1865 Dr. Nathaniel Heckford claims that circumcision cures epilepsy.
  • 1870 Dr. Lewis Sayre declares circumcision cures epilepsy and prevents spinal paralysis.
  • 1871 Dr. M. J. Moses declares that circumcised Jews are immune to masturbation.
  • 1873 Dr. Joseph Bell announces his discovery that circumcision cures bedwetting.
  • 1875 Dr. Lewis Sayre declares that the foreskin causes curvature of the spine, paralysis of the bladder, and clubfoot.

With the introduction of the germ theory, the excuse for circumcision was the prevention of germs, thus was born the hygiene fallacy.

During the 1930s, penile cancer, a rare disease that affects 1:100,000 elderly males, became the reason to circumcise. Yet, Japan, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, non-circumcising countries, have less penile cancer than the USA.

Cervical cancer, mistakenly attributed to smegma, became the excuse for circumcision during the 1950s. Cervical cancer is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), best prevented by safe-sex practices.