Is Male Circumcision Healthy?
Religious traditions aside, science occasionally weighs in on whether circumcision is good or bad for males.
Benefits for men: A paper in PLoS One says that men suffer fewer injuries during sex if they have been circumcised. Over 3,000 men in Kenya aged 18-24 years old were surveyed, half of them circumcised. Self-reporting indicated fewer injuries in the circumcised group, leading the five researchers to conclude,
Self-reported penile coital injuries were common and decreased significantly following circumcision. Improving sexual experience through the removal of a potential source of sexual discomfort may resonate with many men targeted for circumcision services. The role of penile coital injuries in sexual satisfaction, HIV, HSV-2, and as a motivator for seeking circumcision services should be explored further.
Benefits for women: An article in Medical Xpress claims that female partners of circumcised men suffer fewer sexually transmitted diseases and cancer risks. This was no small study:
Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and global health nonprofit and Hopkins affiliate Jhpiego analyzed 60 publications and found consistent evidence that male circumcision is associated with decreased risk in women for cervical cancer, cervical dysplasia, herpes simplex virus type 2 (the main cause of genital herpes), chlamydia, and syphilis. They also found additional evidence that male circumcision is associated with decreased risk for human papillomavirus, or HPV, which causes cervical cancer and genital warts.
Any claimed benefits of circumcision for the prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases can be rendered moot via a different practice: faithful monogamy.
Neither article discussed the religious traditions behind male circumcision, which have a long history since ancient times. Female genital mutilation, by contrast, is a serious issue in discussions of women’s rights in Muslim countries where it is forcibly practiced. See Steinfeld and Earp’s piece on The Conversation about the different types of genital modification practices between males and females, and the controversies arising from these practices as modern attitudes confront ancient traditions. Steinfeld and Earp feel that alleged benefits of male circumcision are equivocal. Indeed, some men become quite agitated about having been ‘violated’ against their will, seeking to go as far as reconstructive surgery. They get some support from medical professionals like popular radio doctor Dean Edell, who has strongly opposed routine circumcision on the grounds it reduces a man’s sexual pleasure. How he could measure such a subjective experience seems dubious.
Other MDs, such as the late Christian missionary doctor Paul Brand—an expert on leprosy—have looked for divine wisdom in the Biblical command that sons of Abraham be circumcised. In his classic book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, he showed that the 8th day after birth, when male children were brought to the Temple to be circumcised, was the time of least bleeding. He also argued that removal of the foreskin prevented transmission of diseases to women. News reports seem to waver pro and con on male circumcision, but the balance of evidence lately seems to be trending in favor of it.
Christians need to be careful in pushing arguments too far for or against circumcision. For one thing, the requirement for circumcision was nullified by the gospel of Christ, as Paul states forcefully in his epistle to the Galatians (5:2-6, 6:15). It’s true he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3) but that was not for spiritual merit, but in order to prevent a stumbling block to Jews in the team’s ministry to the church in Ephesus. To claim that circumcision was commanded for health reasons raises theological issues. Did God create a mistake that had to be removed for good health? To avoid that obviously false notion, an apologist would either have to argue that the foreskin became unhealthy after the Fall, or else God foreknew that He would be ordering circumcision for the Jews later. The latter seems dubious, not only because the command was not universal, but it came some 2,000 years after Adam (according to conservative Biblical dating). Also, if it was given for health reasons, why did Paul emphasize that it was meaningless? One must also recognize that circumcision has been widely practiced by non-Abrahamic tribes including ancient Egyptians and in parts of Asia and Africa. It seems obvious, too, that the practice has not had a measurable impact on fertility between people groups.
Christians are not alone in having philosophical issues with circumcision. Evolutionists need to ask why natural selection created a body part that reduces fitness, if indeed the foreskin facilitates the transmission of disease and needs to be removed. So why does the foreskin exist? Does anyone know? There are conundrums on both sides. For Bible believers, the best explanation seems to be that it was created to protect the more sensitive glans, but has degenerated since the Fall to become a habitat for harmful microbes. That would make the conundrum similar to explaining other forms of natural evil, like parasitism. Historically and theologically, the foreskin seems to have become a symbol of one’s old life that could be removed without lasting harm, as a type of casting off of the flesh through a blood sacrifice for sin. Its location right at the point of the reproduction of the human race seems significant. Secondarily, it was a sign of God’s calling out of the Jews to be His special covenant people. (How many others would ever see that sign, other than God, the man and his wife, is unclear, unless the men in those days washed or worked unclad on occasion, which seems rare in that culture; but by Greek and Roman times, the popularity of the baths would have made it inescapable to Jews who participated.) We know that circumcision was a source of great national pride to Hebrew men. Paul boasted of his former life as an exemplary Jew that he had been circumcised on the 8th day (Philippians 3:5). Jews looked with disdain on the ‘uncircumcised’ Gentiles, an attitude early Christians had to learn to overcome (Acts 11). But on the downside, appearing different before other men could have become a source of persecution in the face of their uncircumcised enemies.
About the only advice we can give for Christians these days is to come to your own reasoned opinion, understanding that historical attitudes don’t matter to us, and more importantly, that the gospel renders circumcision devoid of theological value. Christianity neither requires circumcision nor forbids it. Parents may want to consider whether not circumcising might submit their boy to ridicule in middle school locker rooms these days, but must also look further down the road to consider whether as a man that child may become angry at having been ‘mutilated’ without his consent. The above articles may inform parents whether circumcision has health value for the man and his future wife. Whatever is decided, it should be for scientific reasons, not theological reasons. If worried Christian parents choose it to ‘cover the bases’ of Biblical commands, they need to consider Paul’s admonition, “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision [i.e., as a spiritually meritorious act], that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law.” The gospel of Christ precludes any external works. That was even true of saving faith in the Old Testament. Both Moses and Jeremiah preached that God overwhelmingly desires circumcising the heart (figuratively speaking), not the flesh. In the family of God through Jesus Christ, an uncircumcised Gentile can be ‘circumspect’ in character. That’s what matters to God. It always has—for men and women.