In 1870 an American orthopaedic surgeon launched the notion that a whole range of ailments, rheumatism, asthma, kidney infections, bedwetting, alcoholism, sterility and venereal disease, could be cured by circumcision. Sayre, the surgeon concerned, was acclaimed as the ‘Columbus of the foreskin’.
At the beginning of the twentieth century an American magazine hypothesized that the low incidence of cervical cancer in Jewish women might be a result of Jewish men being circumcised. Although this hypothesis was not confirmed by scientific research, there was a massive overreaction: since then virtually all American male babies have been circumcised, mostly in hospital. In 1900 a quarter of male Americans had been circumcised. This so-called health circumcision, on medical grounds, was used in Europe in the Victorian period, but at that time to prevent masturbation.
When the army medical service published reports to the effect that uncircumcised soldiers were much more susceptible to venereal disease than their circumcised colleagues, circumcision was recommended as a preventative health measure. The result of this was that by the late 1960s some 90 per cent of the male population was circumcised. In 1969 there were the first stirrings of resistance, but it was not until
1990 that there was a real sea change in America. A lobby group for circumcised men was set up and there were direct appeals to the media: ‘We don’t cut babies’ ears off because they need washing behind them, do we?’ Members could not only commiserate with each other, but could also swap experiences about all kinds of methods of restoring the foreskin. These included obtaining ‘new’ tissue by careful stretching of the remains of the foreskin, involving the use of clamps, plasters and elastic bands. Homosexuals, as so often with these kinds of problems, were the trailblazers. From San Anselmo in the United States the anti-circumcision lobby distributes its newsletter No-circ, which reports on successes achieved, like a ban on female circumcision, which is regarded as a first step in the struggle against male circumcision. In a statement the movement argues that doctors who perform a ritual circumcision are infringing the ancient medical adage primum non nocere, do not inflict harm. Even the un charter on human rights is invoked: no one shall be subjected to torture, or inhuman or humiliating treatment.
In early 2007, as a result of publications in the authoritative journal The Lancet, there were unexpected developments. A study in Kenya
headed by scientists from Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore) involved 2,784 Hiv-negative men aged between eighteen and 24. The men were either circumcised or their circumcision had been postponed for two years. After two years 4.2 per cent of the second group had become infected with the hiv virus, whereas in the group of immediately circumcised men the percentage was 2.1!
In Uganda a comparable study was conducted by a team from the University of Illinois, only this time with 4,996 Hiv-negative men between fifteen and 49. This study also showed a halving of the risk of hiv infection. The tenor of the various reactions was more or less unanimous: because of the enormous potential of circumcision, within Southern Africa alone a reduction of 3.7 million hiv infections and 2.7 million deaths from aids, the procedure had to be seen as a preventative measure. This marked a return to ‘health circumcision’.