Head 2 Head: Making The Cut

Infant circumcision: Do parents have the right to intervene, or should they let their boys decide for themselves?

By Matthew Hutson, published on May 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

"Guys and their penises are a strange pair," says Atlanta urologist David Cornell. Who are parents to intervene? The American Academy of Pediatrics' circumcision policy statement says, "It is legitimate for the parents to take into account cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions, in addition to medical factors," and most guys are quite happy with whatever they have. But both the ethics and medical benefits of routine infant circumcision have come under heavy attack by "intactivists," and the rate of circumcision in the United States has dropped from nearly 90 percent to about 50. Should parents let their boys decide for themselves?

Is infant circumcision a violation of a child's rights?

YES: Circumcision is a procedure that medical associations worldwide agree is not justified. It is a culturally sanctioned cosmetic amputation. Circumcision excises a normal body part with several functions: protecting the penis, enhancing the body's immunological resources, and providing specialized erogenous tissue. Parents cannot really know what their infant son would want, so the best decision is to leave the healthy foreskin alone. For parents to take away so intimate a part of their son's body without his consent, barring true medical need, is wrong. —Steven Svoboda is the founder of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child.

NO: I don't think it's a violation of a child's rights any more than the other decisions parents make. Parents decide a lot of things for their children—what vaccinations to get, what schools to go to, what religion, if any, the children should be raised with. There are those who were circumcised at birth and think they're missing something important. There are also a lot of people who wish they had been circumcised at birth. It can be done later, of course, but it's much harder on the person and much more expensive, and the results are often not as good as when done in infancy. —"Joe Smith" was circumcised at 25 for better hygiene but wished it had been at birth.