Your column about infant circumcision [January 28] contained erroneous information. The enclosed remarks by Dr. John Taylor should clarify that “God’s little mudguard” is not basically ordinary skin. It is a highly specialized organ that serves several distinct and important purposes. Arguments about penile cancer and urinary tract infections may be enough to scare American physicians into perpetuating this dubious practice, but the fact is that 85 percent of the world’s males are uncircumcised. Enclosed are two articles from just 35 years ago which seriously promoted female circumcision. It will not be long before we look back with equal horror on male circumcision. Violating the genital integrity of an innocent child of either sex by submitting him or her to unnecessary surgery when s/he cannot consent is genital mutilation and a violation of human rights. –Tim Hammond, National Organization to Halt the Abuse and Routine Mutilation of Males (NOHARMM), San Francisco

Circumcision reduces sexual sensitivity 50 to 75 percent. No one has the right to do this. –Cliff P., Mabelvale, Arkansas

There was talk at my old job that circumcised men had something like one-eighth the chance an uncircumcised man has of catching AIDS through unprotected intercourse with an infected woman. My recollection is that catching any venereal disease is less for circumcised than uncircumcised men. My own father was circumcised at eight (very painful) because of smegma, inflammation, etc–and his was a household that was quite familiar with soap and water; this was not a hygiene problem. Suggested advice: Don’t be a dunce, uncover that schwuntz.

–Dave Schutz, Washington, D.C.

We do have a diversity of opinions here, don’t we? To address the points raised in these and similar letters:

The foreskin is not ordinary skin, but is “replete with nerve endings of sexual pleasure.” The chief evidence for this seems to be research by John Taylor. Dr. Taylor opposes circumcision, has not formally published his research, and is not a specialist in neurology. His remarks on the structure and purpose of the foreskin are highly conjectural and include such statements as, “We haven’t done a strict quantitative study [but] to my mind [certain nerve endings] are rather more commonly found here in the prepuce than they are in the glans of the penis.” It would be foolish on the basis of such work to make any definite statements about the foreskin’s contribution to sexual sensitivity or anything else.

The medical arguments in favor of circumcision are specious; circumcision causes more medical problems than it prevents. Not true. Complications from circumcision are low, approximately 0.2 to 0.6 percent. A total of three deaths have been ascribed to circumcision since 1954. In contrast, more than 1,000 U.S. men develop penile cancer each year, 225-317 of whom die. Circumcision effectively prevents penile cancer. Of 60,000 cases since 1930, fewer than 10 have involved circumcised men. Circumcision also eliminates foreskin problems such as inflammation, failure to retract, etc. These problems persist in noncircumcising nations such as the UK, despite presumed familiarity with proper foreskin hygiene.

Circumcision is performed without anesthesia and is painful. Anesthesia presents a greater danger to infants. Circumcised infants remember nothing of the operation later in life. There is no evidence for the claim that this early trauma conditions the infant to a life of sexual violence.

Male circumcision is a violation of human rights comparable to female circumcision. Infants cannot give informed consent; the operation should be delayed until they can. Female circumcision often destroys the woman’s capacity for sexual pleasure; male circumcision does not. Parents routinely consent to operations on behalf of their minor children. Postinfancy circumcision is far more traumatic and expensive.

Circumcision reduces the chances of getting AIDS and other venereal diseases. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the evidence for this is conflicting.

The gist of my original column was that no compelling argument could be made either way regarding circumcision. Having read the above, does anybody still need proof?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.