Ethics of non-therapeutic child circumcision

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Male circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin (prepuce) from the human penis.[1] The foreskin has protective, immunological, sensory, and sexual functions. The ethics of non-therapeutic child circumcision being imposed on unconsenting minors (babies and children) has been a source of ongoing controversy.[2][3][4]

Some medical associations take the position that the parents should determine what is in the best interest of the infant or child.[5] Others say that circumcision is an infringement of the child's autonomy and should be delayed until he is capable of making the decision himself.[6]

Medical societies views

Australia and New Zealand

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The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (2010) released a statement indicating that neonatal male circumcision "generally considered an ethical procedure", provided that 1) the child's decision makers, typically the parents, are acting in best interest of child and have been given full knowledge and 2) the procedure is performed by a competent provider, with sufficient analgesia, and does not unnecessarily harm the child or have substantial risks.[7] They argue that parents should be allowed to be the primary decision-makers because providers may not understand the full psychosocial benefits of circumcision.[7] Additionally, this procedure does not present substantial harm compared to its potential benefits, so parents should be allowed full decision-making capacity as long as they are educated properly.[7]

This statement also recognizes that waiting until the boy is of sufficient age to make his own decision would better respect his autonomy, but points out that this may interfere with a child's religious inclusion that circumcision was meant to confer.[7] With neonatal male circumcision, they acknowledge that the child may later on disagree with the parents' decision [7] but using the same reasoning, an uncircumcised child may also disagree with his parents' decision not to have him circumcised in infancy.[7]


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The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) issued a position statement on September 8, 2015, which highlighted the ethical issue surrounding the child's inability to give consent.[8] Since children require a substituted decision maker acting in their best interests, they recommend to hold off non-medically indicated procedures, such as circumcision, until children can make their own decisions. Yet the CPS also states that parents of male newborns must receive unbiased information about neonatal circumcision, so that they can weigh specific risks and benefits of circumcision in the context of their own familial, religious and cultural beliefs.[8]


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The Danish Medical Association (Lægeforeningen) has released a statement (2016) regarding the circumcision of boys under the age of eighteen years. The organization says that the decision to circumcise should be "an informed personal choice" that men should make for themselves in adulthood.[9] According to Dr. Lise Møller, the chairwoman of the Doctors’ Association's Ethics Board, allowing the individual to make this decision himself when he is of age respects his right of self-determination.[10]


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The Royal Dutch Medical Association (Koninklijke Nederlandsche Maatschappij tot bevordering der Geneeskunst) (KNMG) and several Dutch specialist medical societies published a statement of position regarding circumcision of male children on 27 May 2010. The KNMG argues against circumcising male minors due to lack of evidence the procedure is useful or necessary, its associated risks, and violate the child's autonomy.[6] They recommend deferring circumcision until the child is old enough to decide for himself.[6] The Royal Dutch Medical Association questions why the ethics regarding male genital alterations should be viewed any differently from female genital alterations, when there are mild forms of female genital alterations (like pricking the clitoral hood without removing any tissue or removing the clitoral hood altogether). They have expressed opposition to both male circumcision and all forms of female circumcision, however they do not advocate a prohibition of male circumcision and prefer that circumcisions be done by doctors instead of illegal, underground circumcisers .[6]


In 2013 children's ombudsmen from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland, along with the Chair of the Danish Children's Council and the children's spokesperson for Greenland, passed a resolution that emphasized the decision to be circumcised should belong to the individual, who should be able to give informed consent.[11]

The Nordic Association of Clinical Sexologists supports the position of the Nordic Association of Ombudsmen who reason that circumcision violates the individual's human rights by denying the male child his ability to make the decision for himself.[12]

The medical doctors at Sørland Hospital in Kristiansand, Southern Norway have all refused to perform circumcisions on boys, citing reasons of conscience.[13]

United Kingdom

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The medical ethics committee of the British Medical Association also reviewed the ethics behind circumcision. Since circumcision has associated medical and psychological risks with no unequivocally proven medical benefits, they advise physicians to keep up with clinical evidence and only perform this procedure if it's in the child best interest.[4] However, they acknowledge the procedure as a cultural and religious practice, which may be an important ritual for the child's incorporation into the group.[4] They recognize that parents have the authority to make choices for their child, and they emphasize it is important for parents to act in their child's best interest.[4] They ultimately report that views vary in their community about the benefits and risks of the procedure, and there is no clear policy for this situation.[4]

Adult circumcision

In a paper published June 2006, the British Medical Association Committee on Medical Ethics does not consider circumcision of an adult male to be controversial, provided that the adult is of sound mind and grants his personal consent after receiving all material information regarding the known risks, disadvantages, and potential benefits to be derived from the surgical operation.[4]

Child circumcision

In the same British Medical Association paper, circumcision of a child to treat a clear and present medical indication after a trial of conservative treatment also is not considered to be ethically questionable, provided that a suitable surrogate has granted surrogate consent after receiving all material information regarding the known risks, disadvantages, and potential benefits to be derived from the surgical operation.[4]

Criticism and revision of BMA statement

Commenting on the development of the 2003 British Medical Association guidance on circumcision, Mussell (2004) reports that debate in society is highly polarized, and he attributes it to the different faiths and cultures that make up BMA.[14] He identifies this as a difficulty in achieving consensus within the medical ethics committee. Arguments put forward in discussions, according to Mussell, included the social and cultural benefits of circumcision, the violation of the child's rights, and the violation of the child's autonomy.[14]

The BMA statement of 2003 took the position that non-therapeutic circumcision of children is lawful in the United Kingdom.[15] British law professors Fox & Thomson (2005), citing the House of Lords case of R v Brown, challenged this statement. They argued that consent cannot make an unlawful act lawful.[16] The BMA issued a revised statement in 2006 and now reports the controversy regarding the lawfulness of non-therapeutic child circumcision and recommends that doctors obtain the consent of both parents before performing non-therapeutic circumcision of a male minor. The revised statement now mentions that male circumcision is generally assumed to be lawful provided that it is performed competently, is believed to be in the child's best interests, and there is valid consent from both parent or the child if it is capable of expressing a view.[4]

United States

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American Academy of Pediatrics

The American Academy of Pediatrics currently has no official stance on neonatal circumcision. The previous statement has expired and not been reaffirmed.[17][18]


The expired American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) position statement on male circumcision (2012) has attracted significant critical comment, including from the AAP itself.

In a dissenting paper, Frisch et al. (2013) point out "Circumcision fails to meet the criteria to serve as a preventive measure for UTI [...] As a preventive measure for penile cancer, circumcision also fails to meet the criteria for preventive medicine [...] circumcision for HIV protection in Western countries fails to meet the criteria for preventive medicine [...] Circumcision fails to meet the commonly accepted criteria for the justification of preventive medical procedures in children."

Frisch et al. conclude that "The AAP report lacks a serious discussion of the central ethical dilemma with, on one side, parents’ right to act in the best interest of the child on the basis of cultural, religious, and health-related beliefs and wishes and, on the other side, infant boys’ basic right to physical integrity in the absence of compelling reasons for surgery. Physical integrity is one of the most fundamental and inalienable rights a child has. Physicians and their professional organizations have a professional duty to protect this right, irrespective of the gender of the child."

Van Howe & Svoboda (2013) criticize the AAP statement because it failed to include important points, in accurately analyzed and interpret current medical literature, and made unsupported conclusions.[19]

Frisch et al. (2013) pointed out the difference of the AAP's statements in comparison to other Western countries, such as Canada, Australia, and various European countries.[20] They attribute this to cultural bias since non-therapeutic male circumcision is prevalent in the United States. They also criticized the strength of the health benefits the statement had claimed, such as protection from HIV and other STIs.[20] The American Academy of Pediatrics responded that because about half of American males are circumcised and half are not, there may be a more tolerant view concerning circumcision in the US, but that if there is any cultural “bias” among the AAP task force who wrote the Circumcision Policy statement, it is much less important than the bias Frisch et al. may hold because of clear prejudices against the practice that can be found in Europe. The AAP elaborately explained why they reached conclusions regarding the health benefits of circumcision that are different from the ones reached by some of their European counterparts.[21]

American Medical Association Journal of Ethics

In August 2017, the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics featured two separate articles challenging the morality of performing non-therapeutic infant circumcision.

Svoboda argues against non-therapeutic circumcision.[22] He states that this decision should be considered in the context of benefit vs risk of harm, rather than simply risk-benefit due to the non-therapeutic nature of the procedure.[22] He states that benefits do not outweigh the risks, and also claims that foreskin removal should be considered a sexual harm.[22] He also goes on to conclude that non-therapeutic circumcision largely violates the physician's duty to respect a patient's autonomy since many procedures take place before a patient is able to freely give consent himself.[22]

Reis and Reis's article explore the role physicians play in neonatal circumcision.[23] They state that if physicians outline all the currently known risks and benefits of the procedure to the parents and believes the procedure is indeed medically indicated, they cannot be held accountable for any harm from the procedure.[23] However, they still advise against physicians recommending unnecessary, irreversible surgeries, which is a category circumcision falls in frequently.[23]

Journal of Medical Ethics

JME symposium on circumcision, June 2004

The Journal of Medical Ethics published a "symposium on circumcision" in its June 2004 issue.[24] The symposium published the original version (2003) of the BMA policy statement and six articles by various individuals with a wide spectrum of views on the ethicality of circumcision of male minors. In the introduction, Holm (2004) states:

"It is therefore very interesting that the piece of evidence we really need to have in order to be able to assess the status of circumcision is singularly lacking. We simply do not have valid comparative data concerning the effects of early circumcision on adult sexual function and satisfaction. Until such data become available, the circumcision debate cannot be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and there will always be a lingering suspicion that the sometimes rather strident opposition to circumcision is partly driven by cultural prejudices, dressed up as ethical arguments."[25]

Hutson (2004) states:

"The most fundamental principle of surgery is that no operation should be done if there is no disease, as it cannot be justified if the risk of the procedure is not balanced by the risk of a disease. Even when patients have significant disease, potentially dangerous operations can hardly be justified if their risks are much greater than the disease itself. The problem for routine circumcision is that since there is no disease, no complication whatsoever can be tolerated, since the risks of the procedure are not being balanced against the risks of any present disease."[26]

Short (2004) disputes Hutson's claims and argues that male circumcision has future prophylactic benefits that make it worthwhile. He concludes:

"If we believe in evidence based medicine, then there can be no debate about male circumcision; it has become a desirable option for the whole world. Paradoxically, this simple procedure is a life saver; it can also bring about major improvements to both male and female reproductive health. Rather than condemning it, we in the developed world have a duty to develop better procedures that are neither physically cruel nor potentially dangerous, so that male circumcision can take its rightful place as the kindest cut of all."[27]

Viens (2004) contends that "we do not know in any robust or determinate sense that infant male circumcision is harmful in itself, nor can we say the same with respect to its purported harmful consequences." He suggests that one must distinguish between practices that are grievously harmful and those that enhance a child's cultural or religious identity. He suggests that medical professionals, and bioethicists especially, "must take as their starting point the fact that reasonable people will disagree about what is valuable and what is harmful."[28]

Hellsten (2004), however, describes arguments in support of circumcision as "rationalisations", and states that infant circumcision can be "clearly condemned as a violation of children’s rights whether or not they cause direct pain." He argues that, to question the ethical acceptability of the practice, "we need to focus on child rights protection." Hellsten concludes, "Rather, with further education and knowledge the cultural smokescreen around the real reasons for the maintenance of the practice can be overcome in all societies no matter what their cultural background.[29]

Mussell (2004) examined the process by which the BMA arrived at a position on non-therapeutic circumcision male minors, when the organisation had groups and individuals of different ethnicities, religion, culture, and widely varying viewpoints.

Arguments were put forward that non-therapeutic male circumcision is a net benefit for some because it helps them to integrate in the community.

Arguments were also put forward that non-therapeutic male circumcision is a net harm because it is seen as a breach of children's rights—the right of the child to be free from physical intrusion and the right of the child to choose in the future. This argument was given emphasis by Britain's incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) into domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

The BMA produced a document that set forth legal and ethical concerns but left the final decision on whether or not to perform a non-therapeutic circumcision to the attending physician.[30]

The last document published by the Journal of Medical Ethics in its symposium on circumcision was a reprint of the BMA statement: "The law and ethics of male circumcision: guidance for doctors (2003).[15]

Journal of Medical Ethics circumcision issue, July 2013

The Journal of Medical Ethics devoted the entire July 2013 issue to the controversial issue of non-therapeutic circumcision of male children.[31] The numerous articles represent a diverse variety of views.[32][33]

Other views

Povenmire (1988) argues that parents should not have the power to consent to neonatal non-therapeutic circumcision.[34]

Richards (1996) argues that parents only have power to consent to therapeutic procedures.[35]

Somerville (2000) argues that the nature of the medical benefits cited as a justification for infant circumcision are such that the potential medical problems can be avoided or, if they occur, treated in far less invasive ways than circumcision. She states that the removal of healthy genital tissue from a minor should not be subject to parental discretion, or that physicians who perform the procedure are not acting in accordance with their ethical duties to the patient, regardless of parental consent.[36]

Somerville argues that because of a lack of credible information about male circumcision in some societies, the ability for the caregiver to grant informed consent on behalf of their child is compromised. This may be especially true of caregivers from a religious or cultural tradition that is particularly biased towards or against circumcising infants.[36]

Canning (2002) commented that "[i]f circumcision becomes less commonly performed in North America ... the legal system may no longer be able to ignore the conflict between the practice of circumcision and the legal and ethical duties of medical specialists."[37]

The Committee on Medical Ethics of the British Medical Association (2003) published a paper to guide doctors on the law and ethics of circumcision. It advises medical doctors to proceed on a case by case basis to determine the best interests of the child before deciding to perform a circumcision. The doctor must consider the child's legal and human rights in making his or her determination. It states that a physician has a right to refuse to perform a non-therapeutic circumcision.[4] The College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia took a similar position.[38]

Fox and Thomson (2005) state that in the absence of "unequivocal evidence of medical benefit", it is "ethically inappropriate to subject a child to the acknowledged risks of infant male circumcision." Thus, they believe, "the emerging consensus, whereby parental choice holds sway, appears ethically indefensible".[16]

The Belgian Federal Consultative Committee for Bioethics (Comité Consultatif de Bioéthique de Belgique) (2017), after a three-year study, has ruled that circumcision of male children for non-therapeutic purposes is unethical in Belgium.[39][40] The process is irreversible, has no medical justification in most cases, and is performed on minors unable to give their own permission, according to the committee. Paul Schotsmans of the University of Leuven, on behalf of the committee, noted "the child’s right to physical integrity, which is protected by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in particular its protection from physical injury."[40] The Belgian minister of health replied that the federal institute for health insurance cannot check and know whether in (individual cases) a circumcision is medically justified or not and that she will continue to reimburse circumcision of minors as the safety of the child is her primary concern and she wants to avoid botched circumcisions by non-medical circumcisers.

Surrogate consent

Patient autonomy is an important principle of medical ethics.[41] Some believe that consent for a non-therapeutic operation offends the principle of autonomy, when granted by a surrogate.

Since children, and especially infants, are legally incompetent to grant informed consent for medical or surgical treatment, that consent must be granted by a surrogate — someone designated to act on behalf of the child-patient, if treatment is to occur.[42]

A surrogate's powers to grant consent are more circumscribed than the powers granted to a competent individual acting on his own behalf.[42][43] A surrogate may only act in the best interests of the patient.[42] A surrogate may not put a child at risk for religious reasons.[42] A surrogate may grant consent for a medical procedure that has no medical indication only if it is the child's best interests.[42]

The attending physician must provide the surrogate with all material information concerning the proposed benefits, risks, advantages, and drawbacks of the proposed treatment or procedure.[42][43]

The Committee on Bioethics of the AAP (1995) states that parents may only grant surrogate informed permission for diagnosis and treatment with the assent of the child whenever appropriate.[43]

There is an unresolved question whether surrogates may grant effective consent for non-therapeutic child circumcision.[34][42][44] Richards (1996) argues that parents may only consent to medical care, so are not empowered to grant consent for non-therapeutic circumcision of a child because it is not medical care.[35]

Regardless of these issues, the general practice of the medical community in the United States is to receive surrogate informed consent or permission from parents or legal guardians for non-therapeutic circumcision of children.[4][34]


The non-therapeutic circumcision industry in the United States produces more than $1 billion annually. If parents could not grant consent for non-therapeutic circumcision, then no one could grant consent for the non-therapeutic circumcision of a child, so the $1 billion annual business would collapse. The American medical trade associations, more than other nations, have been unwilling to recognize the child's right to bodily integrity, to security of the person, and the right to personal autonomy.

See also

External links


  1. REFbook Sawyer, ?S: Pediatric Physical Examination & Health Assessment. pp. 555-556. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4496-7600-1.
  2. REFjournal Boyle, G.J. / J.S. Svoboda / C.P. Price / J.N. Turner: Circumcision of healthy boys: Criminal assault?, in: Journal of Law and Medicine. 7: 301–310.
  3. REFweb (September 2004). Policy Statement On Circumcision Icons-mini-file acrobat.gif, Royal Australasian College of Physicians. Retrieved 28 February 2007.
  4. a b c d e f g h i j Committee on Medical Ethics. The law and ethics of male circumcision: Guidance for doctors. London: British Medical Association 2006.
  5. REFjournal Task force on circumcision (1999): Circumcision policy statement, in: Pediatrics. 103 (3): 686-693, PMID, DOI.
  6. a b c d Non-Therapeutic Circumcision of Male Minors. Utrecht: Royal Dutch Medical Association, 2010.
  7. a b c d e f Circumcision of Male Infants. Royal Australasian College of Physicians. September 2010.
  8. a b REFjournal Sorakan, ST.. / J.C. Finla / A.L. Jefferies (2015): Newborn male circumcision, in: Paediatr Child Health. 20 (6): 311-315, PMID, PMC.
  9. REFnews McCann, Erin (8 December 2016)."Danish Doctors’ Group Wants to End Circumcision for Boys".
  10. REFnews (5 December 2016)."Danish doctors come out against circumcision". Retrieved 2 November 2019.
  11. REFweb Nordic Association of Children's Ombudsmen (30 September 2013). Let the boys decide for themselves. Retrieved 3 November 2019.[] Tuesday, 1 October 2013
  12. Statement on Non-Therapeutic Circumcision of Boys.. Nordic Association of Clinical Sexologists, Helsinki, 10 October 2013.
  13. REFnews Faull, Solrun F. (30 August 2016)."Hospital doctors in Southern Norway will not circumcise boys".
  14. a b REFjournal Mussell, R. (June 2004): The development of professional guidelines on the law and ethics of male circumcision, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 30 (3): 254-258, PMID, PMC, DOI.
  15. a b REFjournal British Medical Association (2004): The law and ethics of male circumcision: guidance for doctors, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 30 (3): 259-263, PMID, PMC, DOI.
  16. a b REFjournal Fox, M. / M. Thomson (2005): A covenant with the status quo? Male circumcision and the new BMA guidance to doctors, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 31 (8): 463-469, PMID, PMC, DOI.
  17. REFjournal Task Force On Circumcision (1 September 2012): Circumcision Policy Statement, in: Pediatrics. 130 (3): 585-586, PMID, DOI.
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  19. REFjournal Van Howe, Robert S. / J. Steven Svoboda (1 July 2013): Out of step: fatal flaws in the latest AAP policy report on neonatal circumcision, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 39 (7): 434-441, PMID, DOI.
  20. a b REFjournal Frisch, M. / Y. Aigrain / V. Barauskas / R. Bjarnason / S.-A. Boddy / P. Czauderna / R.P.E. de Gier / T.P.V.M. de Jong / G. Fasching (1 April 2013): Cultural Bias in the AAP's 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision, in: Pediatrics. 131 (4): 796-800, PMID, DOI.
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  23. a b c REFjournal Reis-Dennis, S. / E. Reis (1 August 2017): Are Physicians Blameworthy for Iatrogenic Harm Resulting from Unnecessary Genital Surgeries?, in: AMA Journal of Ethics. 19 (8): 825-833, PMID, DOI.
  24. REFjournal (2004): Symposium on circumcision Symposium on Circumcision, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 30 (3): 237-263.
  25. REFjournal Holm, S. (2004): Irreversible bodily interventions in children, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 30: 237, PMID, PMC, DOI.
  26. REFjournal Hutson, J.M. (2004): Circumcision: a surgeon’s perspective, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 30 (3): 238-240, PMID, PMC, DOI.
  27. REFjournal Short, R.V. (2004): Male circumcision: a scientific perspective, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 30 (3), PMID, PMC, DOI.
  28. REFjournal Viens, A.M. (2004): Value judgment, harm, and religious liberty, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 30 (3): 241-247, PMID, PMC, DOI.
  29. REFjournal Hellsten, S.K. (2004): Rationalising circumcision: from tradition to fashion, from public health to individual freedom—critical notes on cultural persistence of the practice of genital mutilation, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 30: 248-253, PMID, PMC, DOI.
  30. REFjournal Mussell, R. (2004): The development of professional guidelines on the law and ethics of male circumcision, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 30 (3): 254-258, PMID, PMC, DOI.
  31. REFjournal (2013): The issue of male circumcision, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 39 (7).
  32. REFjournal Foddy, B. (2013): The concise argument: Medical, religious and social reasons for and against an ancient rite, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 39 (7): 415, PMID, DOI.
  33. REFjournal Earp, B.D. (2013): The ethics of infant male circumcision, in: Journal of Medical Ethics. 39 (7): 418-420, PMID, DOI.
  34. a b c REFjournal Povenmire, R.: Do Parents Have the Legal Authority to Consent to the Surgical Amputation of Normal, Healthy Tissue From Their Infant Children?: The Practice of Circumcision in the United States, in: Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law. 7 (1): 87-123, PMID. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  35. a b REFjournal Richards, D. (May 1996): Male Circumcision: Medical or Ritual?, in: Journal of Law and Medicine. 3 (4): 371-376. Retrieved 11 April 2008.
  36. a b REFbook Somerville, Margaret: Altering Baby Boys’ Bodies: The Ethics of Infant Male Circumcision, in: The ethical canary: science, society, and the human spirit. pp. 202-219. New York, NY: Viking Press. ISBN 0-670-89302-1. Retrieved 12 February 2007.
  37. REFjournal Canning, D.A. (2002): Informed consent for neonatal circumcision: an ethical and legal conundrum, in: J Urol. 168 (4 Pt 1): 1650-1651, PMID, DOI.
  38. REFweb College of Physicians & Surgeons of British Columbia (2007). Circumcision (Infant Male). Retrieved 6 December 2013.
  39. REFweb Comité Consultif de Bioéthique de Belgique (8 May 2017). Opinion no. 70 of 8 May 2017on the ethical aspects of nonmedical circumcision, SPF Santé Publique. Retrieved 3 November 2019.
  40. a b REFnews (2017)."Ethics committee rules against infant circumcision". "As circumcision is irreversible and therefore a radical operation, we find the physical integrity of the child takes precedence over the belief system of the parents."
  41. REFbook Beauchamp, Tom L. / James F. Childress: Principles of Biomedical Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.
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