Debate circumcision ethics call
- 27 June 2011
- From the section Health
A group of circumcised men is calling on British doctors to debate the ethics of the procedure at the British Medical Association conference this week.
NORM-UK is a support group for men who say they have been harmed.
It has held its first public demonstration in the UK, lobbying delegates in Cardiff.
It wants British doctors to recognise circumcision as major, irreversible surgery that should not be carried out on new-born babies.
There are no accurate figures, but an estimated 30,000 boys are circumcised in the UK every year. The majority of them as a result of their parents' religious faith.
Islamic, Jewish and some Christian communities circumcise male children as a matter of course.
Dr Antony Lempert, a GP and chairman of the British Secular Medical Forum, has submitted a motion to the BMA conference calling for doctors to stop performing "irreversible, clinically unnecessary surgery on the genitalia of non-consenting minors."
The medical establishment, including the General Medical Council, refers to the procedure when carried out on children as "Non Therapeutic Circumcision", seemingly recognising that there is little benefit.
Some NHS trusts have decided not to carry out circumcisions requested for religious reasons.
Some doctors who support the practice have argued that research shows circumcised heterosexual men to have a reduced risk of HIV infection.
While Dr Lempert believes that adults should be free to act on this research if they wish, he believes there is no justification for carrying out the procedure on children.
"To cut off a functioning part of a boys body for no therapeutic reason, simply because the parents have a particular belief, is anathema to normal medical practice, it's an extraordinary exception," he said.
In addition, Dr Lempert points out, circumcision carries risks; both the immediate danger of haemorrhage and infection, and the long term risk of impaired sexual function.
"The available evidence shows that the foreskin contains 20 to 30 thousand nerve endings and has a very important function in lubrication... circumcision gets rid of one of the most sensitive areas of the penis," he said.
It is not just here in the UK that campaigners are trying to force the issue into the public domain.
Later this year, San Francisco is due to become the first American city to vote on whether to ban circumcision, although Jewish and Muslim groups are challenging the vote as unconstitutional.
There are, of course, many men who see circumcision as an important part of their religious and cultural identity and who report no adverse side effects at all.
But that is not the point, according to NORM-UK.
The group argues that circumcision can have side-effects and they want the medical profession to stop viewing the procedure as minor and inconsequential, not just for children but for adults too.
Dan from London, another member of Norm-UK, had his circumcision three years ago, offered as an easy fix for the condition phimosis, a tightening of the foreskin.
He says no one told him just how much of an impact it could have on his sex life.
"Imagine having your tongue but not being able to taste," he says.
"You'd still be able to use your tongue, but if you weren't able to taste certain foods, or taste anything at all, you know, I liken it to that."