Are circumcisions really necessary?

Rabbi Mordechi Eliyaho holds eight-day-old Adam as he and others participate in a circumcision ceremony during a sit-in in front of the Knesset.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Circumcision is the removal of the foreskin that naturally cove­rs and protects the tip of the penis, a practice that has waxed and waned in popularity for thousands of years. It's quite common in some parts of the globe, such as the United States and the Middle East, while it's the exception to the rule in Europe and South America. In other places, such as Africa, it all depends on the customs of the tribe to which you belong -- some tribes universally perform circumcisions, while others universally do not.

The Book of Genesis in the Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament tell of God's deal with Jewish patriarch Abraham: If Abraham, his sons, his slaves and all descendants would practice circumcision, God would bless them with a kingdom on Earth.


But circumcision predated this supposed event, and ancient hieroglyphs show that Egyptians circumcised their males long before Abraham proved his devotion to his Creator by circumcising himself at age 99. For as long as we can guess and for reasons we can only speculate, people all over the world have been practicing circumcision: Aboriginal Australians, Mayans, Aztecs, Phoenicians, Sumatrans, Samoans and Ethiopians, to name a few.

African tribesmen consider it a rite of passage for young men, and so infant circumcision is quite rare. Nearly all Jews and Muslims practice circumcision for clear religious and cultural reasons: Jews circumcise infants to honor Abraham's covenant, and Muslims circumcise their sons -- either as infants or as adolescents -- to emulate and honor their prophet Muhammad, who himself was circumcised. The Christian Church, however, early on determined that there was no need for Christians to circumcise themselves.

­So why do so many Christians -- and so many people who are neither Jewish, Muslim or Christian -- continue to circumcise themselves or their offspring? The World Health Organization estimated in 2007 that 75 percent of non-Jewish, non-Muslim males in America were circumcised [source: WHO]. Are there health benefits to circumcision that justify the pain and permanent physical alteration it creates in newborn boys? Shouldn't children be allowed to grow up with all their parts intact and have a chance to examine the facts and decide for themselves? On the other hand, an uncircumcised penis requires care and cleaning to keep it healthy and free of the bacteria buildup that can cause unpleasant odors, infections and urinary tract infections. Isn't it just easier to be circumcised as a baby and not have to worry about it?

Simply put, is circumcision a savage act or good preventive care?


Getting Circumcised: Live and Let Cut

Mother of Leith Fuad Mosa, age 3, feeds him before he’s circumcised on June 29, 2007, in Baghdad.
Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

In 1999, more th­an 65 percent of infant males in United States were circumcised. The rates are highest in the Midwest (with around an 80 percent circumcision rate), about even in the South and dropping in the West [source: CDC]. Since Jews and Muslims are minorities in America, the decision is usually being made based on either cultural or medical reasons.

But even for Muslims and Jews, there isn't a real imperative to circumcise. Muslims do it strictly out of tradition, since there is no decree in the Koran regarding circumcision. Even among Jews, there's a growing conversation about the continued need for the practice, with some otherwise-observant Jews electing not to circumcise their sons.


There are some valid medical reasons to circumcise. Studies have shown that circumcision can reduce the risk of contracting the HIV virus by 60 percent [source: Timbert]. The studies that uncovered this finding were conducted in Africa, and the World Health Organization (WHO) is attempting to increase circumcision rates throughout the continent in a bid to contain an out-of-control AIDS epidemic. But if it's so effective, why aren't we holding pro-circumcision campaigns in the United States? Opponents of circumcision rightly point out that basic safe-sex practices will also drastically lower the odds of contracting HIV. However, parts of Africa have HIV infection rates as high as 30 percent, and although public health officials don't view circumcision as a magic bullet, it is seen as part of a larger strategy to combat the spread of the disease.

Circumcision has also been shown to lower the risk of contracting other sexually transmitted diseases, such as HPV and chlamydia. On the other hand, the argument that circumcisions reduce the risk of penile cancer doesn't hold much weight when you consider how rare penile cancer is -- in 2008, there were only 1,250 new cases of penile cancer in the United States [source: National Cancer Institute]. In 2005, there were 1.2 million circumcisions performed on infants in America [source: Merrill].

The fact that it's easier to keep a circumcised penis clean is neutralized simply by good hygienic practice. However, a circumcised male doesn't even have to consider the issue, while an uncircumcised male must take good care of his foreskin to prevent it from becoming a hotbed of bacteria.

Anti-circumcision activists claim that circumcision needlessly hurts infants, and there's no doubt that it doesn't feel good. Modern and improved use of pain-numbing agents helps keep discomfort to a minimum, however. Circumcised men never have to deal with certain painful maladies that can afflict uncircumcised men such as phimosis (foreskins that won't retract) or paraphimosis (foreskins that, once retracted, won't re-cover the tip of the penis). These conditions can often require adult circumcision to alleviate the pain and related swelling.

There are competing claims about sexuality. Some claim that sex is better with an uncircumcised penis, while others claim circumcised is the way to go. Some men who are circumcised later in life claim a decrease in sensation, while others claim an improvement.

With good hygiene, safe-sex practices and regular medical checkups throughout a man's life, circumcision isn't necessary. However, it should be left up to each parent to learn as much as possible about the subject, weigh the pros and the cons and make an informed decision. A circumcised boy is unlikely to know any different or care one way or the other, and the same holds true for an uncircumcised boy.

For more articles that might interest you, such as more information on circumcision and AIDS, try the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Rel­ated Articles

More Great Links

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Success Stories: Male Circumcision: A Question and Answer Session." BOTUSA. Sept. 9, 2008.
  • Dunsmuir, W.D.; Gordon, E.M. "The history of circumcision."
  • BJU INTERNATIONAL, Volume 83, Suppl. 1: Pages 1-12. Jan. 1, 1999.
  • Farley, Da vid. "Who stole Jesus' foreskin?" Slate. Dec. 19, 2006.
  • Holman, John R. "Adult Circumcision." American Family Physician. March 15, 1999.
  • Infectious Diseases Society of America. "Male Circumcision May Decrease Risk Of HPV Infection And Cervical Cancer." ScienceDaily. Dec. 20, 2008. (11 January 2009)
  • JAMA. "Circumcision Not Associated with Reduced Risk of HIV for Men Who Have Sex with Men." ScienceDaily. Oct. 14, 2008. (Jan. 8, 2009)
  • Jamis, Edelita R., M.D. "To Circumcise, Or Not To Circumcise My Baby Boy?" Nov. 18, 2008. (Jan. 4, 2008)
  • Jones, Sandy, et al. "Great Expectations: Your All-in-one Resource for Pregnancy & Childbirth." Sterling Publishing Company, 2004. ISBN 0760741328, 9780760741320.,M1
  • Lebovics, Yehuda.
  • McNeil Jr., Donald G. "Adult circumcision is a tough sell, even for a lower HIV risk." International Herald Tribune. April 15, 2007.
  • Merrill, Chaya T. M.P.H., et al. "Circumcisions Performed in U.S. Community Hospitals, 2005." Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. Jan. 2008.
  • National Cancer Institute. "Penile Cancer." (Jan. 10, 2008)
  • PBS. "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet." (Jan. 7, 2009)
  • Sinha, Kounteya. "Circumcision: It suits Hindus also." The Times of India. Aug. 4, 2005.,curpg-2.cms
  • Thesiger, Wilfred. "The Marsh Arabs." Penguin Classics, 2008. ISBN-10: 0141442085; ISBN-13: 978-0141442082
  • Tierney, John. "Circumcision." The Catholic Encyclopedia. (Jan. 7, 2009)>
  • Timbert, Craig. "Anti-AIDS Program To Fund Circumcision: U.S. Initiative Targets African Men." Washington Post Foreign Service. Aug. 20, 2007.
  • WebMD. "Sexual Health: Circumcision." (Jan. 8, 2009).
  • World Health Organization. "Demand for male circumcision rises in a bid to prevent HIV." July, 2006.
  • World Health Organization. "Female Genital Mutilation." (Jan. 7, 2009)
  • World Health Organization. "Male circumcision: Global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability." Feb. 2007.