Unlike the scientists, politicians, and parents who couldn’t wait to proclaim victory when a few studies showed a correlation between the male foreskin and HIV infection, I will not make bold pronouncements about these findings.
Researchers have discovered that cells in the mucosal lining of human genitalia produce a protein that “eats up” invading HIV — possibly keeping the spread of the AIDS more contained than it might otherwise be.
Even more important, enhancing the activity of this protein, called Langerin, could be a potent new way to curtail the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS, the Dutch scientists added.
Langerin is produced by Langerhans cells, which form a web-like network in skin and mucosa. This network is one of the first structures HIV confronts as it attempts to infect its host.
However, “we observed that Langerin is able to scavenge viruses from the surrounding environment, thereby preventing infection,” said lead researcher Teunis Geijtenbeek, an immunologist researcher at Vrije University Medical Center in Amsterdam.
You’ll recall, of course, that the primary “benefit” of male circumcision as a defense against HIV is that it removes many Langerhans cells. Read through most of the articles in the last year or so on this topic and you’ll see “scientists believe”. Not “scientists know,” but “scientists believe”. Oops?
The question mark on the end of my last sentence is intentional. I have no idea how substantial this research is, or whether it can be replicated. I’m willing to read this last qualification in the story and understand that life is often more complicated than controlled findings.
[Dr. Jeffrey Laurence, director of the Laboratory for AIDS Virus Research at the Weill Cornell Medical College] did offer one note of caution, however.
“In the test tube, this is a very important finding,” he said. “But there are many things in the test tube that don’t occur when you get into an animal or a human. Having said that, though, this is a very intriguing finding.”
Instead of the glee that my viewpoint is now supported, I’ll approach this with caution, the same way circumcision supporters should approach the recent findings on HIV. I suspect the difference is that I know I don’t need science to validate my stance. I’m correct before we get to the science. Circumcision advocates rush to every justification. Why?
But looking at the science, we’re finding information in the short-term. It’s reassuring to project that information long-term, but we must remain open to the possibility that we’re wrong. That is true of any new discovery, but it should be required when the decision is to alter a human body. We should add another, higher standard because that body does not belong to us.
If researchers verify these new findings through real-world tests, will anyone apologize for rushing to circumcise as many males as possible? The answer is an obvious “no”. Those now advocating circumcision will still fall back on the tried-and-true defenses. We’ll okay some version of “alright, it’s not important, but still…“. I can accept that if someone makes decisions about his own body and life. I can’t accept that when someone makes it about someone else’s body and life. But still… isn’t enough.