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Press Release: An Instrument of Distortion

I loosely follow a rule in my blogging that I don't bother with press releases. They're skewed to push the angle of whoever is paying the bill. It might be worth picking out the propaganda from a press release to find the facts, but I can usually achieve that with less effort by going to news sources to make a point. (Of course, most news sources reporting on circumcision are filled with propaganda, too.) Generally a press release is only good for demonstrating propaganda. This recent press release is a good example:

Hospitals in states where Medicaid does not pay for routine male circumcision are only about half as likely to perform the procedure, and this disparity could lead to an increased risk of HIV infection among lower-income children later in life, according to a UCLA AIDS Institute study.

The first half is fact. The second half is conjecture. News, then propaganda. The HIV-circumcision studies researched the effect of voluntary, adult male circumcision in reducing the risk of female-to-male HIV transmission from heterosexual intercourse. It is inaccurate to draw the conclusion that the foreskin puts men at higher risk of HIV. Unprotected sex with HIV-infected partners increases an individual's risk of HIV infection. The male must first engage in that specific activity to become infected. Focusing on the foreskin distracts from efforts to reduce such behavior.

But that doesn't sell the way fear sells.

But recent clinical trials in South Africa, Kenya and Uganda have revealed that male circumcision can reduce a man's risk of becoming infected with HIV from a female partner by 55 to 76 percent. In June 2007, the AAP began reviewing its stance on the procedure.

By now you know what was left out of that summary, right? When public health officials talk about voluntary, adult male circumcision, they never mean voluntary, adult. Never.

As the press release so helpfully theorizes in its opening line:

Lack of coverage puts low-income children at higher risk of HIV infection

Think of the (poor) children. That's not very original. It has the added bonus of being inaccurate. Are these children sexually active? Specifically for the age of the children discussed in this press release, the answer is no for 100% of them. They are not at risk of (female-to-male) sexually-transmitted HIV infection. But those necessary, contradictory details must be ignored. Think of the (poor) children.

That is how propaganda is done.


Not to let an opportunity go to push for a collective response to an individual problem, the Family Planning Cooperative Purchasing Program helpfully regurgitates this press release, with the necessary bits of speculation helpfully emphasized in bold. An example:

In addition to the overall lower circumcision rates, the researchers found that the more Hispanics a hospital served, the fewer circumcisions the hospital performed. For Hispanic parents, the circumcision decision was about more than simply cost, since male Hispanic infants were unlikely to receive the procedure even in states in which it was fully covered by Medicaid.

What point is FPCPP trying to make with that emphasis, given the sentence that follows it? The only justification I infer is an implicit suggestion that we need to encourage Hispanics to "Americanize". That wouldn't surprise me because it's the typical, mindless support for non-therapeutic genital mutilation in America. And FPCPP files this under "Public Policy", among other categories. See above re: voluntary and adult. If it's not that, I'm stumped.


You and I, through a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, paid for this research. Mental Health? With mission creep like that, who could possibly worry about government-run health care?

However, this raises the question of national health care and the future of routine infant male circumcision in America. I've long held that the former would not end the latter. The political environment for defending non-therapeutic circumcision is too strong, as evidenced by studies like the one leading to the above press release. No politician is going to say that parents can't circumcise, despite the clear constitutional flaw in our status quo.

Ending public funding isn't sufficient. The state should not pay for mutilation, but fails to end the practice. Poor parents pay for the surgery out-of-pocket. They complain about it, citing the potential benefits as an excuse for why Someone Else should pay, but they pay the cost anyway. Their sons are not protected by their state's lack of Medicaid reimbursement. And ending government reimbursement doesn't always end government reimbursement, as Minnesota's politically-motivated solution showed.

Still, I need to have a think on my position. I won't suddenly support government-run health care, but I should explore the nuances further.


This post is timely. I am about to post letters to the various officials in my state on this issue, Medicaid and circumcision. Should one of them return some version of that press release I'll be sure to plagiarize part of your response. ;) Plus ending medicaid coverage is a step in the right direction even if it doesn't solve the whole problem. I think the only way the problem will really be solved is when most doctors actively refuse to do the, rather than sitting on the fence. Do you plan to write any letters for your state?

Something else also occurred to me. Back around December there was a piece of research published that demonstrated that if South Africa would implement a program of anual HIV testing the prevelence could be reduced at least 95% in about 10 years. Now that might be difficult to do in a country like South Africa. But one has to wonder why something like this hasn't been raised in any serious manner in the US. It would be quite easy to include an HIV test at every physical or encounter with a Dr (like an ER). A policy like that would do far more than any other possibility short of a vaccine. Funny I don't see anyone picking up that banner at all, let alone if the same zeal. hmm.

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