Delicate Decision: Post 2 of 4

On Monday the Los Angeles Times offered a typical analysis of infant male circumcision. There are many points to address from this story, so I’ve broken them up into multiple posts. (Posts 1, 3, and 4.)

Point two:

In the first year of life, 1 in 100 uncircumcised [sic] boys will develop a urinary tract infection. Only 1 in 1,000 circumcised boys will. “While that’s a tenfold reduction, you have to keep in mind that the risk was only 1% to begin with,” says Dr. Andrew Freedman, pediatric urologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Proper hygiene can prevent most infections.

When considering potential benefits, context matters more than an isolated statistic. For example:

The downside of letting the child make the decision later is that adult circumcision is more expensive, painful and extensive. During an infant circumcision, practitioners numb the site with local anesthesia, then attach a bell-shaped clamp to the foreskin and excise the skin over the clamp. The clamp helps prevent bleeding. In adults, the procedure involves two incisions, above and below the glans (tip of the penis), stitches and a longer recovery. The cost is about 10 times that of a newborn procedure.

Let’s ignore the rights of the individual for the moment. I don’t, but the hypothetical does, so I’ll stick with it. The cost is about 10 times that of a newborn procedure. So what? As a fact on its own, it means nothing. How likely is it that an intact male will need circumcision in his lifetime? If it’s less than 10%, and it is, then a basic cost-benefit analysis shows that we will spend less overall by circumcising only those males who medically require circumcision. The “ten times more expensive” meme is worthless upon minimal inspection.

Dr. Freedman seems to understand this:

“The HIV data is the most compelling to date that circumcision can help prevent the transmission of the virus in male-female sex,” Freedman says. “While this is important to sub-Saharan Africa, the question is how many infant boys need to be circumcised in the United States to prevent one case of HIV transmission 25 years from now? Factoring in even the rare complication that can occur with circumcision may render this study insignificant.”

No kidding. Aside from not being able to predict who (or if) circumcision will help prevent HIV, we can also not predict who will suffer a complication. I seriously doubt the few children who suffer a significant mutilation of the penis care that most circumcisions are “successful”. Nor do I suspect the few boys who die from circumcision care about the general outcome. Of course, this should matter now, even before reducing a child to his (unknown) place in the statistical herd.

But he might not get it:

If parents do opt for the procedure, Freedman advises that they do it when the baby is a newborn, have someone trained and experienced perform the procedure, and use pain control. “The older a child gets, the less benefit there is, and the greater the risk,” he says. “I would ask parents of an older child to strongly reconsider if the only reason they’re doing this is cosmetic.”

The parents of a newborn who choose circumcision for cosmetic reasons? Those are somehow okay? Again, the individual – the patient – matters. When he is healthy, every other outside opinion is meaningless to the consideration of his body.

More analysis of this article and the CDC’s obtuse approach can be found here and here at Male Circumcision and HIV.