snip, snip

If Circumcision Halves Risk of Spreading HIV, Should All Baby Boys Get Cut?


When researchers in Africa, conducting studies to see if circumcision helps stops the spread of HIV, realized the answer was a resounding “Yes,” they called off the experiment — because not doing so was to put uncircumcised men at too great a risk, and that would’ve been unethical. A simple snip, they found, reduced the risk of men contracting HIV from women by an astonishing fifty percent. With that data in hand, American health officials are thinking about officially recommending all newborn boys get their foreskin removed. Fetishists, for one, are going to be pissed.

If there were a pill available that reduced the chance of spreading HIV by 50 percent, drug makers would be pushing it on us like Adderall. Or at least as heavily as that HPV vaccine. But we’re not talking about a pill; we’re talking about a simple medical procedure that, at least for men who have sex with women, halves the risk of infection (for HIV-positive women giving it to men).

There are, and will be, critics who already say circumcision is tantamount to torturing young baby boys who cannot give consent to mutilation. There are those who say that while male circumcision doesn’t eliminate sexual pleasure — the way, say, female circumcision (the removal of the clitoris) does — it certainly makes things, well, less enjoyable. While an estimated 79 percent of American men are circumcised, the rate for newborns is falling; black and Latino communities, which are disproportionately ravaged by HIV, have even lower circumcision rates.

Except, here’s the rub: Circumcision leads to no significant decrease in the spread of HIV between men who have sex with other men. Which means government-sanctioned circumcision of all newborn boys, for the sole reason of reducing the spread of HIV, would be mostly meaningless for those young Williams, Matthews, and Dwaynes that grow up to be gay. Except in their formative years, where they’re trying the lady thing. (Circumcision does decrease the risk of urinary tract infections for baby boys, apparently.)

But even Alan Chambers will admit, you can’t tell whether a baby boy is going to be gay or straight as soon as he comes out of the womb. And if we go with napkin math estimates that 90 percent of Americans are straight, then there’s a good chance the newborn will be sleeping with the opposite gender. If there’s a way to cut his risk of contracting HIV by 50 percent down the line, shouldn’t we encourage parents to snip things in the bud?

NB: It’s all going to be the topic du jour at the first National H.I.V. Prevention Conference in Atlanta this week.