The New York Times reports today on new findings that circumcision rates have declined precipitously in the United States, from 56 percent in 2006 to 32.5 percent last year. That’s a phenomenal decline in just three years. The story quotes doctors saying that of course no one in the profession should ever tell a parent to circumcise their child and the Centers for Disease Control declines to comment because they never do on this issue, even though they know full well that the drop in circumcisions is a potentially serious public health problem. But circumcision has become like abortion these days, where allying yourself with the Mengele doctors who mutilate infant boys risks bringing a horde protesters to your office door.
It does not really matter if any individual parent decides that circumcision is not for them, as I explained in this New York magazine story, "The Case Against the Case Against Circumcision." But it absolutely matters if a whole society turns against the practice. The exact relationship between circumcision and the prevention of certain diseases – from AIDS on down – is not perfectly understood. But it is absolutely understood that societies in which the majority of boys are circumcised have lower rates of such diseases than other societies.
Daniel Halperin, an AIDS expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, has compared various countries, and the patterns are obvious. In a study of 28 nations, he found that low circumcision rates (fewer than 20 percent) match up with high HIV rates, and vice versa. Similar patterns are turning up in the U.S. as well. A team of researchers from the CDC and Johns Hopkins analyzed records of over 26,000 heterosexual African-American men who showed up at a Baltimore clinic for HIV testing and denied any drug use or homosexual contact. Among those with known HIV exposure, the ones who did turn out to be HIV-positive were twice as likely to be uncircumcised.
Anti-circumcision activists have convinced us that circumcision is harmful and dangerous and does a lifetime of damage. As with pro-life activists, they’ve done that using dubious research and emotional hysteria. The difference is – this time their message has resonated with people on the right and the left. Don’t believe it.