Should circumcision be banned? This country thinks so

Korin Miller

Circumcision has been a controversial practice for years, and one country in particular is now looking to ban the practice.

Iceland’s parliament is considering a bill that proposes a penalty of up to six years in jail for anyone who performs a circumcision except for medical reasons, the Guardian reports.

But the practice, which involves removing the foreskin that covers the head of the penis, has strong religious roots, and Muslim and Jewish leaders are strongly opposed to the proposal. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, told the Guardian that the bill is a “dangerous attack” on religious freedom. “The criminalization of circumcision is a very grave measure that raises deep concern,” he said.

According to the bill, proposed by Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir of the center-right Progressive party, the circumcision of young boys and babies violates their rights and is incompatible with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The bill compares circumcision to female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice of removing a female’s external genitalia for nonmedical reasons, which is banned in many Western countries — including Iceland, where FGM has been outlawed since 2005.

Will Iceland outlaw circumcision? (Photo: Getty Images)

The bill claims that many circumcisions are performed without anesthesia and in “homes that are not sterile, and not by doctors but by religious leaders. There is a high risk of infections under such conditions that may lead to death.” It notes that parents have the right to guide their children in religious matters but says that “such a right can never exceed the rights of the child.” If boys wish to be circumcised when they’re older, they have the right to do so, the bill says.

Circumcision is less common for reasons other than religion in Europe than it is in the U.S., where many male babies are also circumcised for social as well as medical reasons. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 60 percent of newborn babies in the U.S. were circumcised in a hospital setting in 2010 — and that doesn’t include babies who were circumcised in a religious ceremony.

Recent data from Population Health Metrics puts U.S. male circumcision incidence at 71.2 percent, with Iceland at 0.1 percent, France at 14 percent, and the U.K. at 20.7 percent.

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement that says that “evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks and that the procedure’s benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it.” The organization specifically cited benefits such as the prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and spreading of some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. However, the organization added that the “final decision should still be left to parents to make in the context of their religious, ethical, and cultural beliefs.” The CDC also lists circumcision as an “HIV risk reduction tool.” “When men are circumcised, they’re less likely than uncircumcised men to get HIV from their HIV-positive female partners,” the CDC says on its website. The organization says that male circumcision also reduces the risk of a man getting herpes and HPV from a female partner who has the infections.

But the reason behind the reduction in risk for infections and diseases is simply that not all boys and men who are uncircumcised are great at cleaning under their foreskin, S. Daniel Ganjian, MD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. And that can allow bacteria and viruses to build up in that area, causing damage, he says.

However, no medical procedure is without risks. Circumcision of a baby comes with the risk of infection or scar tissue, though Ganjian calls these “very minimal compared to the much greater benefit of circumcision.” Ganjian says that the claims that baby boys who are circumcised at home have a “high risk” of infections that might lead to death are not valid. “Medical research doesn’t show that it’s riskier when it’s done at home or hospital,” he adds.

Of course, plenty of people would stand by the Iceland proposal — particularly the so-called intactivists, who may be at least partially behind the CDC data that shows hospital circumcision rates generally falling since the 1970s.

“Iceland already has a ban on cutting girls, so they’re trying to make this gender neutral,” says Georganne Chapin, executive director of Intact America, an organization that opposes circumcision and applauds Iceland’s approach. “The ethical issues are exactly the same — they’re cutting body parts off of non-consenting children.” Chapin tells Yahoo Lifestyle she expects that this movement will grow, even in the U.S. “I would hope that eventually those in the U.S. who are all in favor of outlawing genital surgery on little girls would see that we should treat all of our children equally,” she says.

Ultimately, notes Ganjian, the choice of whether to circumcise should be left to the parents. “It’s definitely a decision of the family to make,” Ganjian says. “I don’t think doctors or lawmakers should force parents to get or not to get circumcision.”

Meanwhile, according to reports, the Icelandic bill has popular support in parliament. If it passes its first reading, it will go into a committee stage for several months before it becomes law.

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