Male circumcision a cutting issue

THE SNIP: A question of choice.
THE SNIP: A question of choice.

Last year, I wanted to write a balanced, comprehensive and definitive article on male circumcision.

I soon realised I would need far more time, patience and resources than I had available. It is a deeply personal and emotive issue, even for experts contacted for interview. If leading medical practitioners were too heavily influenced by their own experience to offer unbiased comment and insight, how could I possibly write a proper, ethical report?

Not to mention the fact that on more than one occasion I was slighted because of my sex.

"How can you write about male circumcision," one high-profile doctor said to me.

"You're a woman and you wouldn't understand".

What a curious comment to make, I thought at the time - men have been writing as though they were the authority on women's bits for, well, ever.

But last weekend, the subject cropped up in my personal circles. A mum-to-be confessed to a big difference in the opinions of her blood family and her family-in-law on the matter. While everyone was agreed female circumcision was barbaric, were she to deliver a son, one set of relatives would argue for the snip while the other would stand in strong opposition.

"For my part, I don't mind," she said later when I asked if I could write about it.

"I mean, I do, I guess, when I think about it. But then my head starts to spin trying to consider all the different points of view and I almost don't want to have a say in the matter. I feel like I can't win either way. I guess I hope it's a girl!"

Thing is, if she does have a girl, her daughter's body will still be subject to change based on medical or cultural pressure. The same pressures inform the debate about male circumcision; for some people, foreskins are removed for health purposes but for others, it's a cultural question.

But while boob jobs, which may be carried out for cosmetic or medical reasons, are usually performed on adult women who have consented to the operation, male circumcision is usually performed on young male children. That there isn't the same opportunity for consent is why the issue is so complex.

I wonder, as a modern New Zealander, are you for or against the circumcision of male babies? And I wonder how you arrived at that position. If you are in favour of the practice, is it because it makes the penis 'cleaner', look better, feel better, or it's part of your religion? If you are against it, why does it irk you so much?

An article published in The Conversation late last year does a pretty great job of surmising the current state of play here and elsewhere. I recommend you read it as my below précis doesn't do it justice.

However, based on the article, we might say Europe is broadly against the circumcision of baby boys for medical reasons, but confused about cultural and moral rights. America is less certain that there are no health benefits, though not everyone agrees the procedure should be covered by insurance.

Meanwhile, in Australia, cosmetic circumcision has been banned at public hospitals for some time, though parents may elect to have the surgery carried out privately. And the official position of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians is:

"After reviewing the currently available evidence, the RACP believes that the frequency of diseases modifiable by circumcision, the level of protection offered by circumcision and the complication rates of circumcision do not warrant routine infant circumcision in Australia and New Zealand. However it is reasonable for parents to weigh the benefits and risks of circumcision and to make the decision whether or not to circumcise their sons."

So that suggests that here, as in Europe, the question of whether to or to not circumcise your male children is couched in culture, not medicine. This makes the discussion more than a little complicated. People tend to avoid making negative judgements about cultural practices - especially those rooted in religious practice - for fear of offending. People also like to embrace the idea positive multiculturalism is a great Australian and new Zealand strength, even if actually figuring out how it works is a little harder.

Yet the authors of the aforementioned Conversation piece encouraged the community to engage in reasonable and respectful dialogue about whether or not we should, as a country, endorse male circumcision. I'd like to echo that call. Especially as we are also in the process of figuring out how we feel about altering bodies without consent in other areas (you may be familiar with the Australian parliamentary inquiry into the forced sterilisation of people with a disability, for example, or the battle being fought by the intersex community in gaining recognition for their historic lack of chance to choose, also in Australia).

Because isn't that what all this boils down to - choice? As a culture, we like to embrace the idea of choice. We like to promote ourselves as a society where we are lucky enough to be in a position to choose how we express ourselves, how we live our lives, how we look and how we live.

So is it OK that a man might have had a choice about the physicality of his penis made for him? Or should we instead look to letting him make the choice himself? And if so, what should a fellow consider before signing on for a snip?

Over to you.

What are your thoughts on male circumcision?

And in the meantime, I'll wonder whether a woman could ever ask a man to change the shape of his penis because she likes the look or feel of it better, as he might ask her to change the shape of her boobs, or nipples, or vagina. Would a wife ever buy her husband a circumcision in return for a new pair of breasts? I wonder...

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