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Single-Payer and Circumcision in America

In my second response to Hanna Rosin's posts on circumcision at The Daily Dish, I closed with this:

As a circumcised male, why do I care whether circumcision is mandated by the government or merely by my parents? The result - forced circumcision - is the same for me. Basically, Rosin engages in the "if you don't like circumcision, don't circumcise your son" defense. This is wrong. The case against circumcision centers on the boy as a (healthy) human being, not the boy as a son of parents making a choice.

This is the core of the ethical refutation of prophylactic infant male circumcision. Proxy consent cannot be justified on any grounds because the surgery is unnecessary, permanent, and carries an inherent risk of damage beyond what is deemed acceptable. On the last point, remember that no one considers the boy's potential future disagreement with society's definition of acceptable.

Ms. Rosin's passage that prompted my comment involved the question of government-mandated circumcision. The CDC is not recommending that, of course. My point stands because, to the circumcised child, an influenced decision is no better than a required non-decision if he does not wish to be circumcised. But it does raise an interesting point for the current debate over health insurance reform that I've attempted to make in the past. From Ed Morrissey:

I’m neutral on the issue of circumcision, which has become a controversial practice, but find this idea of interventions very, very odd. In the first place, circumcision does not provide an immunity to STDs, not AIDS or anything else. Studies indicate that circumcised males may have less danger of acquiring an infection, but as the NYT points out, that’s from heterosexual relations — a very minor channel of AIDS communication in the US. Men have much better choices than circumcision for avoiding HIV infection, including the use of condoms (still not a perfect defense, but better than circumcision), refraining from intravenous drug use with shared needles, avoiding high-risk sexual practices altogether, and so on.

Why should the CDC push circumcision at all? The government has no business being in the middle of that decision. Under ObamaCare, however, when the government starts paying more and more of the health-care tab, they will point to ambiguous cost savings down the road — in this and other cases, decades down the road — to pressure Americans into surrendering their choices now. [ed. note: surrendering the choices of their children]

Apart from unnecessarily cluttering the single-payer issue with the "ObamaCare" phrase, this is exactly right, I think. How often do we need to see the public health community ramble on about the cost-benefit analysis "proving" that the net effect of prophylactic infant male circumcision is positive? How many lies pretending that non-essential and non-functional are synonyms will be necessary before we accept that not everyone shares the same view about what individuals should do and have, when those same people so often prove that they mistake their opinion for fact? Those people are at least as likely to make it to positions of power as anyone who considers the child's lack of need and possible future objections.

It's useful to highlight that most countries with an explicitly single-payer health care system have infant male circumcision rates that don't approach 10%. Of course. But we can't dismiss that the rates are greater than 0%. We must consider why.

I think the question of why narrows to culture. American culture places a high, irrational value on circumcision and its alleged wonders. Whether it's the perceived health benefits for diseases that are already unlikely in a normal human state or a fear that schoolmates and sexual partners will laugh at him if he's normal rather than common, we don't evaluate circumcision factually. Ms. Rosin demonstrated this when she wrote that calling circumcision surgery is "a bit of an exaggeration." No, it's not, but our society possesses a strong anti-curiosity attitude on the topic. As Mr. Morrissey noted, the New York Times article provides all the necessary data to show that the CDC's thinking is irrational. Yet, it's picked up by people like Ms. Rosin who uncritically regurgitate only the parts they like and declare the resulting subset of findings uncontroversial. This is the low level of discourse in America surrounding circumcision and children.

If America had implemented a single-payer system at the same time England created its system, we could make a one-to-one comparison and the incidence of circumcision today would likely be close. But we didn't. Instead, we have 60 additional years of circumcision to defend and justify. We have irrational beliefs to refute, should those holding those beliefs be willing to question them. We have a society that "knows" the foreskin is "just a flap of useless skin" and isn't interested in hearing anything to the contrary, no matter how logical or based in scientific proof. A majority of our society still believes that the individual child is in the care of his parents for his medical decisions without a thought that this non-therapeutic surgical intervention is (social) experimentation, not medical care. The national discussion becomes about what people want to believe, not what is true. Cost is not a primary concern.


Patrick Appel posted the Ed Morrissey link at The Daily Dish, where I found it. Mr. Appel writes:

The CDC is thinking of promoting circumcision, not requiring it. Whether or not you agree with the procedure, this controversy has nothing to do with health care reform. If single-payer leads to more circumcision, then how come America has among the highest rates of circumcised men in the world, much higher than most if not all countries with socialized medicine?

Mr. Appel makes the same mistake. The argument isn't that single-payer leads to more circumcision. The argument is that American single-payer will not lead to a decrease in male circumcision. Either the system will pay or parents will pay. My view is the former because public health officials invariably think about the public rather than the individuals in the collective and politicians do not have the moral framework to say "no" to the inevitable backlash that would occur. Without legal reform recognizing the same rights for boys that we've already codified for girls, circumcision will continue in America, regardless of who pays.

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