Circumcision originates in religious rituals. Many parents still have their sons circumcised for religious or cultural reasons; those of Jewish and Islamic faith, and in many communities of Africa, for example.
Sometimes there’s a medical need, such as when the foreskin’s too tight to be pulled back.
There’s also some evidence of health benefits: fewer urinary tract infections and less risk of inflammation of the glans or foreskin, reduced penile cancer, and reduced cervical cancer in partners. Circumcision also makes it easier to keep the penis clean.
There’s also evidence that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV infection in heterosexual men, and it’s currently encouraged as part of HIV prevention programmes in some African countries. It’s not clear whether male circumcision also helps reduce other STIs.
Like any surgical procedure, there are risks. But they’re very low.
Risks include pain, bleeding or infection, irritation of the glans, inflammation of the penile opening, or injury to the penis. Very rarely, the foreskin’s cut too short or too long, fails to heal properly, or re-attaches to the end of the penis, requiring minor surgical repair.
All these risks are higher if the circumcision’s done traditionally rather than in a hospital. Circumcision is also probably a bad idea if a man has a blood-clotting disorder.
Circumcision doesn’t affect fertility, nor does it enhance or reduce sexual pleasure for men or their partners.
In adult men, circumcision is most commonly carried out when the foreskin’s tight and won’t pull back. However, alternative treatments such as steroid creams are also available.
Complications after circumcisions carried out for medical reasons in men are very rare and most don’t experience any problems at all. Apart from the initial swelling, bleeding and infection are the two most common issues. Other possible complications in adults include tenderness around the scar, having to remove stitches that haven’t dissolved, and occasionally the need to remove some more skin from around the head of the penis.
There are people who campaign strongly against the procedure, making it harder to assess the pros and cons objectively.
There’s also the argument that the (unnecessary?) loss of a body part without the consent of the child is wrong.
Is it a good idea overall? The benefits in newborns probably outweigh the risks, but they’re not big enough for paediatricians to recommend universal newborn circumcision.
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