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Circumcision is a medical procedure in which the foreskin of the penis is removed. In an uncircumcised penis, this loose flap of skin acts as a protective sheath most of the time, with the ability to retract when necessary. The term “circumcision” is also used to refer to a practice in which tissue from the female genital area is removed, with some people preferring the term “female genital cutting” to describe this procedure. Depending on where one is in the world, this may be a widespread practice or an unusual one, and there are a number of arguments for and against the procedure.
The history of this ceremony is inarguably ancient, as evidence from Egyptian tombs clearly indicates. Several religions also specifically prescribe circumcision for their male adherents, including Judaism and Islam. Traditionally, the procedure is done to infants or young children, depending on regional cultural practices. In Islam, for example, ritual circumcision or khitan is done on boys around the age of 12, while the Jewish bris is performed on young infants.
At one time, the procedure was widely encouraged for medical reasons, and male infants were routinely circumcised in many hospitals. The argument for the procedure was that it was easier to keep the penis clean, and that it reduced the risk of infection in unhygienic conditions. It also eliminated the risk of developing a tight foreskin, an uncommon but painful occurrence. However, people raised questions about ethical issues related to circumcision, including the issue of performing an unnecessary medical procedure on minors, and the potential for future mental distress. These protests led to a reform in hospital policy, with most facilities now asking parents if they want their boys to be circumcised.
Some studies have suggested the procedure may actually increase the potential risk of contracting HIV and genital warts, although these study results have been disputed. Other opponents have argued that the foreskin is meant to protect the delicate genital tissue, and that removal of the foreskin can lead to an increased risk of injury, and a loss of sensitivity.
The decision to circumcise or not is ultimately personal. Parents can weigh a dizzying array of arguments for and against, and many of these arguments are sprinkled with misleading statistics and the results of studies of questionable validity. The greatest argument for waiting is that it allows the boy to make a personal choice later in life about whether or not he wants to be circumcised, because the procedure can be performed at any age in the event that someone opts for it, but it is difficult to reverse in the case of people who wish that their foreskins had been left intact.
Parents who are expecting the birth of a baby boy should definitely discuss the issue before the birth, not least because the father may have strong personal feelings about circumcision.