Family Health Guide

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History of Circumcision

Hieroglyphs from before 2300 BCE depicting circumcision show that the procedure was practiced in ancient Egypt before 2300 BCE. And circumcision was ostensibly common among Semitic people throughout the Middle East for centuries BCE, according to the Bible (the book of Genesis records that it was a religious sacrifice, begun by Abraham, to enter into a covenant with God). Many other cultures removed boys’ foreskins, as well. Why? Hypotheses include: to mark entrance into adulthood; to signify those with higher social status; to humiliate enemies; to enhance sexual pleasure; to limit sexual pleasure; for personal hygiene reasons (the circumcised penis is slightly easier to clean). The truth is, no one is entirely sure why the practice started in many areas, nor why it spread.

In America, circumcision became the norm after World War II, when soldiers were encouraged to have circumcisions in the belief it would cut down on rates of venereal disease and other infections, particularly among soldiers serving in North Africa, where the troops endured brutal heat, sand storms, and poor sanitary conditions. After WWII, the urban- and suburbanization of modern America meant that most babies were born in hospitals, and most—some say upwards of 80 percent—were circumcised.

In the past few decades, however, increasing skepticism about the benefits—and concern over the risks—of circumcision have led to a decrease in the practice. And anti-circumcision groups have proliferated on the Internet, claiming that the procedure can cause everything from sexual dysfunction to post-traumatic stress disorder. To critics, circumcision seems, at best, an unnecessary surgical procedure. At worst, it’s a barbaric form of abuse that robs boys of choice and sexual pleasure. There was even a measure on the ballot in San Francisco to ban infant circumcision, a move that outraged some members of the Jewish and Muslim communities, where infant circumcision is part of religious practice. Pro-circumcision groups have set up competing websites touting the health benefits of the procedure and promoting studies that support their view.  In August 2012, the (AAP) revised its policy statement after examining the latest studies to state that the preventative health benefits outweigh the benefits, but stopped short of recommending routine circumcision for all infant boys.

Today, just over half of all American boys are circumcised as infants (although researches stress that these statistics may be low as they only include hospital circumcisions).

Globally, about 30 percent of men worldwide, or 670 million, are circumcised, most as infants, making it the most common infant surgery in the world. But circumcision rates vary widely by country and culture, being almost universal in some areas and almost unknown in others. Nearly every Muslim boy is circumcised as part of religious and cultural practice, meaning rates approach 100 percent in parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Korean boys tend to be routinely circumcised, while other Asian countries rarely practice circumcision. Not circumcising is also the norm in South and Central America, where only 20 percent of males are circumcised.