Last year, the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG - De Koninklijke Nederlandsche Maatschappij tot bevordering der Geneeskunst) released a position statement discouraging the practice of male circumcision. This was supported by many medical and scientific associations. The core of the position: there is no medical reason to surgically remove a part of the genitals of healthy babies and young children, a serious violation of the rights of the child. This irreversible surgery on children who are incapable of consent is performed about 10 to 15,000 times a year in the Netherlands, usually for religious reasons and often without anesthesia.
Many people think that the surgical removal of the foreskin is a risk-free surgery. This is incorrect. Shortly after the surgery, complications such as bleeding, infections, urethral strictures, punctured urethras, scarring and deformities are common. Also, amputations and deaths have been reported. This procedure performed without anesthesia leads to severe pain reactions in babies. In the long term, psychological and sexual issues.
Although there are good reasons for a ban, advocates at the KNMG are not advocating for this. The fear is that banning the procedure will force it underground, and would be performed by unskilled people under unsanitary conditions. Thus, the number of complications can greatly increase.
It is not realistic to expect that the practice of circumcision of boys will soon disappear. In many Jewish and Islamic circles, the procedure is so natural that one cannot imagine not performing the surgery. The solution lies rather in a gradual change in mentality in which boyhood circumcisions are seen as less 'normal.'
Worldwide, there are visible currents of this change in mentality. There is no medical organization that recommends routine boyhood circumcision for medical reasons. In many countries, the percentage of newborn circumcisions is high. In California, enough signatures were gathered for a referendum to ban the circumcision of minors. In several countries, the Children's Ombudsman condemned the operation. Sweden passed a law the prohibits circumcising babies without anesthetic.
This growing aversion towards boyhood circumcision is due to secularization and a growing number of mixed marriages, but also by increased attention to children's rights and the harmful effects of boyhood circumcision, short and long term.
Criticism of the practice, not only those for whom the surgery has no significance, but also in Jewish and Islamic circles, will create more and more discussion about the procedure. As these concerns grow, more and more parents are getting together at the kitchen table to discuss the matter of their newborn son being exposed to unnecessary surgical removal of the foreskin. With the debate on female genital mutilation, we know how important it is to reinforce parental doubts, to stimulate and support them in their opposition to social, cultural and religious pressure. In addition to this, many actors in society carry their own responsibilities.
Physicians (general practitioners, young doctors, even doctors employed at circumcision centers) and their professional organizations, should actively inform parents of the medically unnecessary surgery, its harmful consequences and advise them to postpone the operation until the child can decide.
Insurance providers and their umbrella organizations should take social responsibility by asking themselves whether they want to drop any additional insurance for medically unnecessary genital surgeries for children.
Jewish and Muslim parents who have declined the surgery should not be ashamed of this decision, but should carry it with pride and conviction. The same goes for the boys and men of Jewish or Muslim parents who have decided to keep their genitals intact.
The debate on circumcision of boys will never be silenced, and it is now clear that in this debate, religious groups are not untouched. Among religious leaders, there is therefore the challenge, on pain of alienation from their own supporters, to take the time to look into a transition to alternative initiation rites with no irreversible adverse consequences for the child.
The government, the parliament and human rights organizations like the Children's Ombudsman, Pharos, Forum, the Johannes Wier Foundation and Amnesty International, have the responsibility to speak out against circumcision of boys as a violation of children's rights. Such statements of authoritative bodies may release a discussion within religious communities and to doubting parents an important support and backing.
The KNMG calls upon all these parties to assume their responsibilities in the effort to say goodbye to a painful and harmful ritual.