Circumcision is a widely practiced yet somewhat controversial surgery that is usually performed on infant boys. During the surgery, the doctor removes either some or all of the penile foreskin. Circumcision has a historical long tradition and is advocated for by many different religions, although it may also be performed for social or cultural reasons. There are also some health benefits, although potential drawbacks as well.


The exact roots of circumcision are not known with certainty. There are many different theories posed about circumcision that suggest it could have functioned in a variety of ways, including as a:

  • Hygienic measure
  • Rite of passage indicating a boy’s entrance into adulthood
  • Gesture of symbolic castration for slaves or enemies
  • Religious sacrifice

Religion and Circumcision

Different religions have different perspectives about circumcision. Some religious mandate it, while others formally condemn it. In Judaism, for instance, it is considered a commandment from God. It is also widely practiced in Islam and in the Coptic faith; the World Health Organization estimates that of the 664,500,000 men aged fifteen and older who are circumcised, around 70% are Muslim. The Roman Catholic Church formally banned circumcision in 1442 in the Ecumenical Council at Basel-Florence, but has today adopted a neutral stance about circumcision for medical reasons.

In South Africa, churches vary on their stances. Some Christian churches view it as a pagan ritual and oppose the practice, while others (such as the Nomiya church in Kenya) make membership contingent upon circumcision.

Statistics about Circumcision

Statistics for the number of circumcised males vary widely, but it is thought that somewhere between one-sixth and one-third of men from around the world are circumcised. It is most commonly performed on men between the age of infancy and early twenties.

Levels of circumcision are generally low in Europe, Latin America, and Asia (with the exception of the Philippines, parts of Southeast Asia, and South Korea). Although estimates from Spain, Colombia, and Denmark suggest that less than 2% of men are circumcised, the data for the United States indicates that 75% of men are circumcised.

Medical Benefits and Concerns

Studies examining the perceived benefits and drawbacks have received varying results. One of the few non-debated benefits is that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV transmission among heterosexual men. However, it is only efficacious in reducing the transmission from a woman to a man. It has been shown to have little to no effect in reducing the risk of male-to-male or man-to woman HIV transmissions. The WHO has advocated circumcision as a cost-effective means to prevent HIV transmission, as long as the surgeries are performed by experienced doctors and the patients give their consent.

Circumcision has also been associated with a reduced risk of urinary tract infections and for penile skin conditions. Some studies suggest that neonatal circumcision reduces the risk of contracting penile cancer, although it should be noted that penile cancer occurs relatively infrequently.

Since the time of the Egyptians, circumcision has been used to reinforce penile hygiene. In 1999, however, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that “there is little evidence to affirm the association between circumcision status and optimal penile hygiene.” Uncircumcised men can have perfectly clean and healthy penises, while some circumcised men may experience medical issues with their penis.

Ethical Issues

There have been questions raised about the morality of removing healthy, functioning genital tissue from people too young to give their consent. Some organizations argue that infant circumcision is morally wrong because it infringes upon the rights of the individual and represents a human rights violation.

Others worry that circumcision inflicts unnecessary pain upon young children and could cause psychological issues later in life.

To conclude, circumcision is an ambiguous issue. There is no clear “right” or “wrong” answer.

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