Circumcision and the Code of Ethics

Humane Health Care International, Volume 12, Issue 2: Pages 78-80, April 1996.

George C. Denniston, MD, MPH

Over the past few decades, many doctors have become aware that routine neonatal circumcision is unnecessary and should not be performed. In Canada, the rates of circumcision paid for by all provincial and territorial health agencies dave declined from 44% in 1975 to 4% in 1995.1 In the United States, there has been a marked decline in circumcision, but the procedure still is done with considerable frequency. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the rate of newborn circumcision is now 59%, down from approximately 90% twenty years ago.

The Procedure

Circumcision is the act of one person removing a part of the penis of another person. If done for religious reasons, it is performed by a mohel on male infants of the Jewish faith on the eighth day, and by a street surgeon on Moslem boys later in life. In the four western countries where it is still done, it is performed by doctors of medicine or osteopathy, under the supposition of medical necessity.

The foreskin is the forward continuation of the skin of the penile shaft, which covers the head of the penis (glans penis). The inner lining of this skin is highly specialized erogenous tissue.2 This foreskin has several known functions: it protects the glans penis throughout life; it covers the penis during erection, when the shaft enlarges and elongates; and it provides great pleasure to its owner, and to his partner. As one may who had a circumcision, after he had become sexually active, said: "Stimuli that had previously aroused ectasy now have relatively little effect." Many individuals now claim that its removal has been harmful to them.

Canadian physicians now will ask whether those circumcisions done by their colleagues for "medical necessity" (still reimbursable) are legitimate. Since the neonatal circumcision rate in Finland, where virtually every male wishes to preserve his foreskin, is zero, and since the risk of needing a late circumcision in Finland is one in 16,667, it follows that almost all of the circumcisions still being done in North America have no medical necessity, and in fact, are contraindicated. Therefore in Canada, most requests to provincial health agencies for payment for circumcisions may be viewed as fraudulent.

Violation of Ethical Principles

First, circumcision violates the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If the doctor were intact, it may be fairly assumed that he would not want anyone to remove his foreskin without his permission.

Secondly, it violates a major tenet of medical practice: First do no harm.

Last, but not least, circumcision violates all seven Principles of Medical Ethics. Let us look at each principle in turn (AMA 1992).

"Principle I. A physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical service with compassion and respect for human dignity."

"Competent medical service" implies that each procedure is medically indicated, and is done only with fully informed consent. Since 1971, both the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (1975) have stated: "There are no medical indications for routine neonatal circumcision,"3 In addition, informed consent is never obtained from these young patients, and fully informed consent rarely, if ever, from theparents.

Circumcision causes severe pain.1 Does a doctor who unnecessarily causes severe pain practice with compassion?" Doctors may use a local anesthetic; this does nothing for pain and suffering during the healing process. Also, does a doctor who removes a normal part of another person's body without his consent "respect human dignity?" Every individual is entitled to an intact body and to fully informed consent before any part of his body is removed. These principles apply even more strongly to a healthy normal body part.

"Principle II. A physician shall deal honestly with patients and colleagues, and strive to expose those physicians deficient in character or competence, or who engage in fraud or deception."

Physicians do not "deal honestly" with patients if they fail to provide fully informed consent. For example, some doctors use the threat of penile cancer and urinary tract infection to promote circumcision and thus misinform the public. Penile cancer is so rare that one cannot possible justify a routine surgical procedure as a preventative measure. Urinary tract infections, also quite rare, are treated with antibiotics, not by operation.1

"Principle III. A physician shall respect the law and also recognize a responsibility to seek changes in those requirements which are contrary to the best interests of the patient."

The law permits a doctor to operate on another human being, but only if it is in the best interest of that individual. Many men who now speak out against the circumcision that was imposed on them claim that it was not in their best interests.

"Principle IV. A physician shall respect the rights of patients, of colleagues, and of other health professionals, and shall safeguard patient confidences within the constraints of the law."

A patient has the right to an intact body, and has the right (and duty) to refuse to have a normal, valuable part of his penis removed unnecessarily.

"Principle V. A physician shall continue to study, apply and advance scientific knowledge, make relevant information available to patients, colleagues, and the public, obtain consultation, and use the talents of other health professionals when indicated."

Telling the patient that circumcision is in any way useful constitutes a failure to make "relevant scientific information available to that patient." However, even if we could show that some disease is more likely to occur in the intact male, it does not follow that it is ethical to use this risk as a reason to circumcise. In all studies to date, the risks of circumcision have always exceeded any alleged benefits, a fact that is oftennot made clear to parents.

"Principle VI. A physician shall, in the provision of appropriate patient care, except in emergencies, be free to choose whom to serve, with whom to associate, and the environment in which to provide medical services."

A physician is free to choose not remove part of the penis of a male infant, especially if it is inappropriate patient care," even if the parents "demand" it. Modern medical ethics state that parents may make medical decisions for their child, but their actions must be in his best interest. Maimonides, the great Jewish sage, said, "Circumcision should never be done except for reasons of pure faith." In the absence of religious reasons' no such claims can be proved. How can physicians continue to claim that they must carry out the wishes of the infants' parents?

"Principle VII. A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to an improved community."

The United States is the only country in the world that removes part of the penis from a majority of its males for non-religious reasons. Thus stopping a procedure that many consider profoundly harmful and sexually debilitating will contribute to an improved community.

Why Does the Practice Persist?

Circumcision persists because circumcision has produced circumcisers. Many men who have been cut have yet to acknowledge that an injury has been done to them. As a consequence, they may have their son cut; if they become doctors, they may perform this procedure on thousands of innocent males. A conspiracy of silence among doctors, and in the community, has helped to perpetuate this practice, because circumcision could not continue in the United States and Canada without the doctors who performit.

Usually neonatal circumcision is performed without anaesthesia. It is excruciatingly painful.4 Some experts recognize it as a betrayal of the trust that an infant has in its mother and hence it may interrupt maternal-infant bonding. Some scientists postulate that circumcision encodes violence into the brain at a highly susceptible moment in its development.6 Finally, circumcision carries risks of infection, bleeding, damage to adjacent tissues and organs and death.7,8

Besides all of the harmful aspects, nonreligious circumcision, male and female, is a basic human rights violation - a violation by one person of theright of another person to an intact body.

The Solution

The solution to this ethical and human rights dilemma is simple: Do not perform circumcision on infants. By ceasing to perform infant circumcision, nothing is lost. Any adult male may, with fully informed consent, have circumcision whenever he wishes.

As the public becomes aware of the accumulating scientific evidence, circumcision is declining, and with the current attention to unnecessary cost, insurance plans are ceasing to pay for circumcision. Most hopefully of all, caring physicians are reviewing this operation in the light of their own ethical standards and are refusing to perform infant circumcision.


  1. Denniston, GC: Coverage of circumcision. CMAJ 1995;153(10):1420.
  2. Taylor JR, Lockwood AP, Taylor, AJ. The Prepuce: Specialized mucosa of the penis and its loss to circumcision. Br J Urol 1996: 77:291-5.
  3. Report of the Ad Hoc Task Force on Circumcision. Pediatrics 1975; 56 (4): 610.
  4. Anand KJS, Hickey PR: Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus. N Engl J Med 1987; 317: 1321-1326.
  5. Denniston GC: Unnecessary circumcision. The Female Patient 1992; (17): 13-14.
  6. Prescott J: Genital Pain vs genital pleasure: Why the one and not the other? The Truthseeker 1989; 1 (3): 14-21. [Full Text] (Link to
  7. Gairdner D: Fate of the foreskin. BMJ 1949: 2: 1433-1437.
  8. Wallerstein E: Circumcision, the uniquely American medical enigma. Urol Clin North Am 1985; 12 (1) 123-132.

The Golden Rule in Six Religions

No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.
Regarding your neighbour's gain as your own gain, and regard your neighbour's loss as your own loss.
All things whatsoever you would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them, for this is the law and the prophets.
That is the sum of duty; do naught to others which if done to thee, would cause thee pain.
Is there any one maxim which ought to be acted upon throughout one's life? Surely the maxim of loving-kindness is such. Do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you.
Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.

Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Family Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, Washington, USA.

Correspondence and reprint requests to: Dr. G. C. Denniston, 2442 NW Market Street, Suite 42, Seattle, WA 98107


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