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The ethics of infant male circumcision
  1. Brian D Earp
  1. Correspondence to Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Suite 8, Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK; brian.earp{at}gmail.com

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INTRODUCTION

Is the non-therapeutic circumcision of infant males morally permissible? The most recent major development in this long-simmering debate was the 2012 release of a policy statement and technical report on circumcision by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). In these documents, the US paediatricians’ organisation claimed that the potential health benefits of infant circumcision now outweigh the risks and costs. They went on to suggest that their analysis could be taken to justify the decision of parents to choose circumcision for their incompetent children.1

Circumcision and ‘health benefits’

The AAP's pronouncement unleashed a firestorm of commentary, much of it censorious. In this issue, human rights attorney J Steven Svoboda and Professor of Clinical Paediatrics Robert Van Howe take the AAP to taski for committing numerous significant errors, both in their analysis of relevant evidence and in basic medical-ethical reasoning.3 In addition, an independent international panel—composed of 38 leading paediatricians, paediatric surgeons, urologists, medical ethicists and heads of hospital boards and children's health societies—has likewise condemned the findings of the AAP. Writing in the journal Pediatrics, these authors state: Only one of the arguments put forward by the American Academy of Pediatrics has some theoretical relevance in relation to infant male circumcision; namely, the possible protection against urinary tract infections in infant boys, which can easily be treated with antibiotics without tissue loss. The other claimed health benefits, including protection against HIV/AIDS, genital herpes, genital warts, and penile cancer, are questionable, weak, and likely to have little public health relevance in a Western context, and they do not represent compelling reasons for surgery before boys are old enough to decide for themselves.4

My own analysis of the AAP documents—and of ‘health benefits’ defences of circumcision generally—can be found elsewhere.5 Let me turn my attention in this editorial, then, to …

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