Circumcision: PZ Myers is still wrong

Update: This post has received a pingback from Jesse Bering. It does not support the contention he makes, nor does he make it clear which “outspoken atheist blogger” he means (me or PZ). I have asked him to correct his obvious error, but he refuses.

PZ Myers irresponsibly said this last year concerning circumcision:

The health benefits. Total bullshit. As one of the speakers in the movie explains, there have been progressive excuses: from it prevents masturbation to it prevents cancer to it prevents AIDS. The benefits all vanish with further studies and are all promoted by pro-circumcision organizations. It doesn’t even make sense: let’s not pretend people have been hacking at penises for millennia because there was a clinical study. Hey, let’s chop off our pinkie toes and then go looking for medical correlations!

One Pharyngula user meandered over here to defend PZ, but she was crushed under the weight of studies and evidence attesting to potential health benefits from circumcision. Now one major group has turned around on all those ‘vanishing benefits’:

The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday announced its first major shift on circumcision in more than a decade, concluding that the health benefits of the procedure clearly outweigh any risks.

“There is clear evidence that supports the health benefits of circumcision,” said Susan Blank, who led the 14-member task force that formulated the new policy being published in the journal Pediatrics

For starters, Blank says, circumcision helps baby boys pretty much immediately.

“The health benefits of male circumcision include a drop in the risk of urinary tract infection in the first year of life by up to 90 percent,” she says.

But there’s a much bigger reason to do it, Blank said. Circumcised males are far less likely to get infected with a long list of sexually transmitted diseases.

“It drops the risk of heterosexual HIV acquisition by about 60 percent. It drops the risk of human papillomavirus [HPV], herpes virus and other infectious genital ulcers,” she says.

It also reduces the chances that men will spread HPV to their wives and girlfriends, protecting them from getting cervical cancer.

“We’ve reviewed the data and, you know, we have gone through them with a fine-tooth comb, and the data are pretty convincing,” she says.

So now the only question that remains is, When is PZ Myers going to recant his blatantly and irresponsibly false statement where he said that health benefits of circumcision vanish with further studies? It would also be nice if he could clarify whether or not the American Academy of Pediatrics is a “pro-circumcision organization”.

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17 Responses

  1. I’m beginning to become a bit tired of PZ Myers. His full throated defense of evolution is admirable. In fact, there isn’t much more that one can say about evolution than it is a fact, and creationism is full of crap.

    But he seems to not get a lot of medical science right, and I have no clue why. Maybe he thinks that medicine is black and white, much like evolution vs. creationism. Last week, he wrote an article about the death of a child in North Carolina from whooping cough. Well, the story is a lot more nuanced than how Myers wrote it, and it isn’t clear whether the child was infected by someone who was anti-vax or just had lapsed immunity. I’m one of the most pro-vax people on the internet, and I know how whooping cough infections are passed along.

    I also agree with your point of view about circumcision. The evidence seems to vastly outweigh those who oppose it. Bill Gates agrees. I agree. The evidence agrees.

    I doubt PZ Myers will recant. He’s getting a little full of himself.

  2. You pro-circ people cannot get around the fact that by removing the foreskin thousands of nerve endings are removed and the glans, which nature intended to be covered by the foreskin, dries out and loses much sensitivity.

    Men who were cut as adults say the sex was much better when they were natural.

    But, hey, we respect your right to remain in a state of denial. The US is the laughing stock of the world on this issue. If circ is so great, why does no other country do it to their baby boys (that is for non-religious reasons as we do in the US)?

  3. I still strongly oppose male circumcision. I’m not convinced the claimed health benefits outweigh the violation of individual rights. While the American Academy of Pediatrics may make medical claims, I don’t regard them as a resource on justice. It’s not appropriate to cut pieces from someone’s body without their informed consent, unless it’s actually necessary, not merely beneficial. We are not in a position to decide for others which normal and healthy parts of their body are disposable.

    The claims aren’t clear to me. What are the risks resulting from urinary tract infection in baby boys? Are they significantly different in some way from the various other colds and infections I remember getting as a young child? Is it the sort of problem that is worth cutting and removing skin to solve? If risk of infection of the ear (or any other parts) could be reduced by removing the lobes (or any other mostly-skin part), would we do it to a baby? And what is “90%”? Are we talking about turning a 50% chance of infection into a 5% chance by circumcision? Or are we talking about turning 5% into half a percent? What other methods could be used to achieve a similar reduction?

    As for STDs, we shouldn’t have to worry about children getting these diseases until they become sexually active. At that time, at least they can understand in words what is happening to them and raise an objection, even if the choice is still forced on them by their parents. Given the range of ways we can reduce STD transmission, it’s inappropriate to punish virginal, or sexually responsible, or monogamous, or asexual individuals for the risky behaviour of others. I am not willing to have anything removed from my body just because someone else doesn’t know or care how to keep their partner safe. And I’m not willing to do it to prevent whatever malady may strike a particular part of me in the future.

    I am not from planet PZ. For that, we may all be thankful.

    (I had two browser errors, so hopefully this isn’t submitted multiple times).

  4. larryzb – If you want to make your case here, you need to use facts. I see none in your post.

  5. Randy – I don’t find myself all that concerned over this issue of whether or not it is right to do. I am not a crusader like PZ. I don’t want to see circumcision performed by Rabbis and other non-medical personnel, but I have little to no objection to it being done in the proper setting. I understand the ethical concerns out there, but that isn’t a significant issue to me. What is significant to me is when people like PZ deny science in an effort to promote some external agenda.

  6. As we said, we respect your right to remain in a state of denial. The fact was given. Circumcision removes the foreskin which has thousands of nerve endings. This blog is a waste..

  7. Larryzb…you have absolutely no evidence as published in a peer-reviewed high impact journal.

  8. Randy…based on your comments, none of which are supported by any evidence, you’d be opposed to vaccines which are also painful. And given the number of vaccinations given to infants (and how many are under development, the number will increase), I’m sure you’d be opposed to them too.

    The evidence that vaccines (and circumcisions) provide a short- and long-term benefit to children is strong. You are providing nothing more than anecdotes and your opinion.

  9. larryzb – You’ve claimed a lack of sensitivity in those who have been circumcised versus those who have not. There is no consensus on any of that. Men who have been circumcised as adults report better sensation, the same sensation, and different sensation as a result of the surgery.

  10. Michael,

    I find your “so what” attitude on this issue reprehensible.

    Look I understand that infant male circumcision is not going to be banned anytime soon and I realize that many problems would result but this is NOT the issue here.

    One of the trends in modern history, especially American history, is to recognize the rights of individuals, as opposed to condemning them to a fate defined by the circumstances of their birth – their gender, their religion, their ethnicity, the family business etc. I think that is a fair approximation of what most people mean by “freedom” – the right to make your own decisions about the important things in your life.

    Many seem to argue that the male foreskin is hardly a significant issue – but nonetheless it does raise the question of anatomical integrity and whether, by our contemporary standards, anyone including parents, should have the right to impose their own personal views on other people’s body, even their own childs. Granted that male circumcision is less dramatic and less harmful compared to other, but it is simply a matter of degree. The larger question still remains WHY we allow infants to be maimed — yes, maimed, that’s the correct word -– in the name of religion.

    I have lived through so many of these issues wherein traditional ways of behaving are challanged by new ideas – ideas that seem so odd at first. There always seems to be this same type of response to the idea – about how strange it sounds, and how the world got along for so long without it.

    In the end though, we Americans seem to always bend toward empowering the individual, at least in those instances where the rights of the individual do not abrogate the meaningful rights of others.

    I think that the pro-circumcision people have an ENORMOUS burden on them to justify imposing their beliefs on an innocent and defenseless infant. Just repeating the fact that it has always been that way is totally unconvincing to those of us who have seen so many injustices defended in that manner.

    Again the question is very simple:

    Should the authority of parents over the life of their child extend to making permanent and unnecessary changes to their child’s anatomy based solely on their own whims (even if those whims are based in religious beliefs?)

    Of course no one would object to a parent deciding to have a child’s rotten tooth removed, or from getting them a haircut. But the good libertarian position is that the child, as individual, should be protected from the whims of their parents when the issue is a profoundly unnecessary, yet permanent alteration to their anatomy.

    I just find it bizarre that so many seem to have no concern for the rights of the individual male child here. If they want someday to get circumsized – they will have that right. Why do you allow others to impose that decision on them?

    If there is a compelling medical need, then the parents is certainly empowered to decide for the child to have a procedure done. If there is no medical need, then the child should be allowed to decide for themselves, when they come of age.

    You need to prsent a stronger argument from your side as to the threshold question – why should any procedure like this be EVER be allowed, if not medically necessary – and then perhaps a secondary argument as to why you would draw the line somewhere between female circumcision and male circumcision, if that is your position.

    We prosecute Mormons who sleep with their 14-year-old brides, even though their religion calls for that. We throw Christian Scientists in jail for not giving their children emergency medical treatment (and then put the kid in the hospital to treat them), even though their religion calls for that. But somehow cutting off a perfectly normal and healthy part of an infant’s penis, without anesthesia, is “religious freedom” that shouldn’t be interfered with by “the power of the state.”

    Do earlobes fill any kind of function? Is it ok for parents to slice off their children’s earlobes?

    Do male nipples fill any kind of function? Is it ok for parents to slice off their sons’ nipples?

    How old must a religion be to allow parents to slice off various body parts in the name of that religion?

    Can I start a religion tomorrow that demands that certain parts are sliced off, or would I have to wait a certain numbers of years, decades, centuries, or maybe even millenniums?

    Preservation of bodily integrity is a basic and universal human right that the AAP doesn’t seem to value when it comes to male children.

    Why??

  11. I am sure that this intellectually dishonest and self-serving report is nothing but backlash stemming from recent criticism of circumcision as being unnecessary, traumatic, and affecting sexual satisfaction later in life. I imagine the ruling from Cologne, Germany last June which said that infant circumcision ‘constitutes bodily harm’ was a factor in their deliberations as well.

    Let us please get some facts straight:

    1. There is no respected medical board in the world which recommends circumcision for infants, not even in the name of HIV prevention. The trend of opinion on routine male circumcision is so overwhelmingly negative in industrialized nations. The U.S. is the only country in the world where it is common to circumcise baby boys for non-religious reasons.

    2. Male genitalia are no more prone to infection than female genitalia (less so, in fact), circumcized or not. If the foreskin were really such a liability, men would likely have evolved out of it long ago after we all routinely died of foreskin infections. By saying that foreskin is a risk, it perpetuates the notion that it is a disease carrier that should be destroyed. There is no scientific evidence that having a foreskin, in and of itself, will lead to health problems, with or without daily hygiene. I really wish people would stop relying on an argument that implies having a foreskin is a risk if you don’t have running water.

    3. To those defending circumcision on STD grounds, well they are either claiming that infants are sexually active and must be protected, or that parents may make preemptive, invasive decisions about the future, adult sexual lives of their infant children. Either proposition is RIDICULOUS on its face. And why are we assuming that the child is going to be a promiscuous man who won’t ever learn to use a condom, which, even given the science, would supersede circumcision? Keep in mind also that the US has one of the HIGHEST if not the highest rate of STDs in the rich world, and yet the US has the highest rate of circumcision in the rich world(!)

    4. Half or more of circumcisions in the USA are still done without effective pain reduction. This is blatantly unethical. If anesthesia is unsafe at that age, delay circumcision until anesthesia is safe. Better yet, forego it entirely until the boy reaches the age of consent.

    5. There has been no honest attempt to measure the possible long term adverse effects of infant circumcision on adult sexual pleasure and functionality. Until such an assessment is carried out on a large stratified sample of American and Canadian adult men, American doctors cannot honor the ethical duty of “first do no harm.”

    6. The African clinical trials that were used to spearhead the claim that the circumcised penis is less prone to infection, were horrendously flawed and conducted in a scandalously dishonest manner. For a critical analysis of those trials, see: http://www.salem-news.com/fms/pdf/2011-12_JLM-Boyle-Hill.pdf

    Circumcision in the United States in the year 2012 is a testament to the stupidity and gullibility of Americans. And this recent pro-circumcision turn of a small number of USA medical schools and public health professors is a complete & utter disgrace.

  12. The more people try to make me care about the ethical question, the less concerned I become. It’s an insignificant issue.

    As to the actual point of this post – the benefits of circumcision – let’s talk. You said this “report” (I presume you mean position change) is intellectually dishonest and self-serving. How so? How is it self-serving for the American Academy of Pediatrics to change their position? Why did they hold a different view prior to now?

    To your numbered concerns:

    1. Aside from the fact that the AAP is a respected medical institution, the WHO and UNAIDS both back circumcision as one method of HIV prevention. (http://www.health.am/aids/more/expert-consultation-on-male-circumcision-for-hiv-prevention/)

    2. Comparing male and female infection rates is useless – not only to this debate, but even to the very point you went on to make. Furthermore, we have mounds of evidence that show that circumcision helps to reduce the spread of certain diseases. Here are at least two dozen studies – some of which are actually meta-analyses of huge swaths of other studies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circumcision_and_HIV#Observational_studies

    3. No one has said infants are sexually active, but you did do an admirable job of knocking down the strawman you created. As for the prevention of STD’s, it makes sense to promote circumcision in developing nations; shortly after birth is the easiest time to perform the procedure.

    4. Anesthesia is used during many circumcisions on infants. It should be used on all of them. Moreover, the procedure should be outlawed outside a proper medical setting, under the supervision of a proper medical professional (so that means no more in-home Rabbis).

    5. It’s as simple as polling people who have masturbated or had sex while uncircumcised and then done the same when later circumcised. The results are always mixed. As an anecdote, one friend of mine who had it done said he noticed no difference.

    6. First, this sheds some interesting light on your claim from point 1. That is, you said no respected medical institution recommends circumcision, yet the very first sentence from your link talks about WHO and UNAIDS recommending circumcision. Indeed, that’s what spurred your linked paper in the first place. Second, you’re playing bait-and-switch here. We’re talking about the AAP but you’re bringing up another group. There is certainly cross-over in the studies used, but there is also an additional 5 years worth of research behind the AAP’s decision. Third, I simply disagree that the evidence isn’t there to support circumcision as a means of preventing the spread of disease amongst heterosexuals. I’ve gone through quite a bit of it and I find it convincing.

  13. The same cells on the foreskin that increase the risk of a male contracting HIV are also present on the female labia minoris. Let’s whip out the scissors and strap our daughters.

  14. To compare male circumcision to female circumcision is not only grossly inaccurate, but it is also tremendously revolting and dishonest.

  15. Michael, as someone who was on the receiving end of considerable unwanted, needlessly heated rhetoric from intactivist parents when I was pregnant and deliberating about circumcision, I deeply appreciate your efforts to establish some objective facts about the health impact of circumcision. I don’t presume to tell other parents how to decide this topic, but I do think everyone benefits from access to better information. It’s not easy to know what to believe, when you’re not a scientist yourself and when the people debunking an HIV or HPV transmission study are the same ones blindly insisting that your doctor is pressuring you to circumcise for profit reasons, and that your hospital is going to sell the foreskin for the same motive, even though you know both of these claims are factually false. You don’t want to accept the results of a study just because the people opposing it seem irrational. The new AAP position helps to clarify what’s at stake, and provide information to help parents even though it (rightly) refrains from trying to influence the decision with a particular recommendation.

  16. To Michael Hawkins:

    >5. It’s as simple as polling people who have masturbated or had sex >while uncircumcised and then done the same when later >circumcised. The results are always mixed. As an anecdote, one >friend of mine who had it done said he noticed no difference.

    You should know about a thing called conformation bias,
    of course people who are invested in some way in a practise,
    like being circumcised themselves are more likely favoring it.
    So you have to take personal experience accounts with a grain of salt.

    >3. No one has said infants are sexually active, but you did do an >admirable job of knocking down the strawman you created. As for >the prevention of STD’s, it makes sense to promote circumcision in >developing nations; shortly after birth is the easiest time to perform >the procedure.

    Easy for whom? For the parents to force irreversible mutilations on their newborn, since newborn can hardly defend themselves?

    Respect of dignity and bodily integrity demands to wait till sexual maturity and lay out the arguments for the men to decide for themselves.
    I think you and nobody else can defend violating informed consent of a man, by performing newborn circumcision, for it being just more easy.

    Personaly i find that lack of respect for a child disgusting.

  17. PZ Myers is a filthy disgusting scumbag who is directly responsible for someone’s death but I must admit that I believe circumcision is genderist and transphobic and must be eradicated. Many of those supposedly ‘male circumcisions’ are also illegal as they are carried not carried out solely on men but on babies who happen to have a penis who might turn out to identify as female. It’s fairly obvious that this is a way that the transphobic genderist religious establishment have of getting around the laws against female genital mutilation in many countries. Tbh…those who carry out circumicision on children who are not yet old enough to consent and gender identify should be imprisoned.

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