Brian D Earp is a highly respected scientist and ethicist, a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. We regularly cite his paper Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision: should there be a separate ethical discourse?
Some brief details on Brian Earp, from the paper we’re about to link to:
Brian D. Earp is a scientist and ethicist who holds degrees from Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge universities; the last of these degrees was in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science and medicine, focusing on male and female genital surgeries. Brian has served as a Guest Editor for the Journal of Medical Ethics, editing a special issue on the topic of infant circumcision, and has published widely in the leading journals in his field.
A new paper by Brian (and Robert Darby, an independent researcher at the University of News South Wales) has come to our attention – Does science support infant circumcision? It’s 26 pages long, the following extracts from the start and end of the paper should give you the essence of it:
According to Brian Morris (2013), “Science supports infant circumcision” and “so should skeptics.” It would be more accurate to say that ‘Brian Morris supports infant circumcision,’ and that skeptics can think for themselves. In this paper, we critically assess the arguments and evidence presented by Morris in his recent article, and draw some general lessons for the ongoing debate about the science and ethics of infant male circumcision.
Brian Morris and the case against the foreskin
For over a decade, Professor Brian Morris of the University of Sydney has been waging a quixotic campaign against the foreskin. Although he has “no involvement in clinical medicine,” and “cannot claim any more expertise on the topic of male circumcision than any other scientist,” Morris has nevertheless sought to demonize the humble prepuce.
So dangerous, according to Morris, is this particular part of the normal male anatomy—in terms of both personal and public health—that it should be routinely removed from children’s bodies before they can form their own opinion…
In this paper, we have covered just a few of the distortions, misrepresentations, and inadequately referenced claims in Morris’s hymn of praise to childhood circumcision; and we have assessed just one of Morris’s recent publications. To pile on more examples would lead us away from the central point. The most one can say about the medical evidence concerning circumcision is that it is contested and inconclusive. On a global scale, there is a strong balance of opinion among experts in paediatric medicine that the foreskin is not inherently harmful to health, and that the circumcision of infants is entirely unnecessary.
In 2011 alone, nearly a dozen infant boys had to be treated for “life threatening haemorrhage, shock or sepsis” as a result of their non-therapeutic circumcisions at a single children’s hospital in Birmingham. This information was made public due to a specific freedom of information request, and so would not otherwise have been reported. It is clear, then, that we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg in terms of risks and complications.
Since circumcision does carry risk, therefore—as with any surgical procedure—and since it removes a healthy, and indeed private, part of the body, the individual who must wear the lifelong consequences of the intervention should be the one to make the decision.
Brian Morris has a different view, and he is entitled to express it. But he does not speak on behalf of ‘science.’ As historians of medicine remind us, since the mid-nineteenth century all sorts of dubious theories about the nature of the foreskin (and the “health benefits” of infant circumcision) have been advanced and then later debunked. The appropriate attitude for a skeptic is not to swallow these claims unblinkingly, but rather to approach them with suspicion and subject them to a rigorous critique.