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 trade associations formerly took the position that the parents should determine what is in the best interest of the newborn, infant, or child.[5] however the AAP has now abandoned all previous position statements on male circumcision.

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] A circumcision operation may be performed at any age, so an intact boy may elect to have a circumcision whenever he wishes.

Medical trade association 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] but he can have a circumcision at any age.


Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg

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 deferring non-medically indicated procedures, such as circumcision, until children can make their own decisions. Yet the CPS also self-servingly 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]


Flag of Denmark.svg

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]


Flag of the Netherlands.svg

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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2019 revision of BMA guidance

The British Medical Association, being cognizant of the Re B and G (children) (No 2) EWFC 3 (2015) and Re L and B (CHILDREN) (2016) family court decisions, issued a new guidance to its member physicians in 2019. The new guidance urges its member physicians to take an extremely cautious approach to parental requests for the performance of non-therapeutic circumcision on minor boys and to ascertain that the requested non-therapeutic circumcision is in the boy's best interests.[14]

Lempert et al. (2022) criticized the 2019 BMA guidance for "serious weaknesses". They listed:

  1. the absence of an explicit stance on the underlying ethical status of NPC, coupled with an implicit permissive stance,
  2. an incoherent and impracticable analysis of the child’s best interests,
  3. unbalanced guidance regarding cultural issues,
  4. unbalanced guidance regarding scientific issues,
  5. unjustified differential treatment of children of the same sex,
  6. unjustified differential treatment of children of different sexes,
  7. problems with child safeguarding, and
  8. problems with regulation and training,
  9. an unjustified presumption of lawfulness of NPC of minors, and
  10. failure adequately to address recent case law.[15]

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 expired in 2017 and has not been reaffirmed.[16][17]


The expired American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) position statement on male circumcision (2012) attracted significant critical comment during its brief life, 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[21] He states that benefits do not outweigh the risks, and also claims that foreskin removal should be considered a sexual harm.[21] 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.[21]

Reis and Reis's article explore the role physicians play in neonatal circumcision.[22] 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.[22] However, they still advise against physicians recommending unnecessary, irreversible surgeries, which is a category circumcision falls in frequently.[22]

Journal of Medical Ethics

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.[23] The numerous articles represent a diverse variety of views.[24][25]

Other views

Povenmire (1988) argued that parents should not have the power to consent to neonatal non-therapeutic circumcision.[26]

Richards (1996) argued that parents only have power to consent to therapeutic procedures.[27]

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.[28]

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.[28]

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."[29]

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.[30]

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".[31]

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.[32][33] 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."[33] 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.[34] 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.[35]

A surrogate's powers to grant consent are more circumscribed than the powers granted to a competent individual acting on his own behalf.[35][36] A surrogate may only act in the best interests of the patient.[35] A surrogate may not put a child at risk for religious reasons.[35] A surrogate may grant consent for a medical procedure that has no medical indication only if it is the child's best interests.[35]

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.[35][36]

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.[36]

There was an unresolved question whether surrogates may grant effective consent for non-therapeutic child circumcision.[26]

[35] 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.[27] The Canadian Paediatric Society (2015) recommends that circumcisions done in the absence of a medical indication or for personal reasons "should be deferred until the individual concerned is able to make their own choices."[8]

Regardless of these issues, the unethical 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.[26][35]

The emerging consensus on surrogate consent for non-therapeutic newborn, infant, and child circumcision

The power of parents and other surrogates to grant consent is dependent upon the existence of a physical or medical condition in a minor child that requires diagnostic and/or treatment.[27] [37] The right to grant surrogate consent cannot exist in the absence of such a condition. The AAP Committee on Bioethics (2016) now states: "A parent’s authority is not absolute but constrained by respect for the child."[38] This may mean that the AAP now recognizes the child as a person with legal rights of his/her own.

Boys are born with a healthy foreskin that is free of disease. There are no medical indications for a neonatal circumcision. The medical trade associations and other promoters have put forward various alleged benefits from neonatal circumcision for decades to develop business for their physican-members.

The validity of surrogate consent for non-therapeutic circumcision of boys has been questioned for decades.[26] [27] [39]

Bioethicists Myers & Earp (2020) exhaustively reviewed the evidence for and against the alleged health benefits to a healthy person claimed for non-therapeutic circumcision of a neonate, infant or child. They balanced this against the pain, trauma, and loss of body tissue and function. They concluded the claimed health benefits are insufficient to support surrogate consent for non-therapeutic circumcision. Given this, only the subject can grant consent for a non-therapeutic circumcision, after he reaches the right age for circumcision, which does not occurs until a male reaches the age of consent in his jurisdiction which may vary from 16 to 18 years of age. The present practice in the United States and elsewhere of parental consent for non-therapeutic circumcision is entirely unethical.[40]

Moreover, non-therapeutic circumcision of boys may also be unlawful,[41] if a court should accept Adler's arguments.


The non-therapeutic circumcision industry in the United States produces more than $2 billion annually.[42] Third-party payment is a major support to the performance of this medically-unnecessary surgery. 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 $2 billion annual business would collapse. The American medical trade associations, more than those of other nations, have been unwilling to recognize the child's right to physical integrity, to security of the person, and the right to personal autonomy.

See also

External links


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  2. REFjournal Boyle GJ, Svoboda JS, Price CP, Turner JN. Circumcision of Healthy Boys: Criminal Assault?. J Law Med. February 2000; 7: 301-310. Retrieved 29 May 2024.
  3. REFweb (September 2004). Policy Statement On Circumcision Icons-mini-file pdf.svg, Royal Australasian College of Physicians. Retrieved 28 February 2007.
  4. a b 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. Circumcision policy statement. Pediatrics. 1999; 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 c REFjournal Sorakan ST, Finla JC, Jefferies AL. Newborn male circumcision. Paediatr Child Health. 2015; 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. REFdocument Anonymous: Non-therapeutic male circumcision (NTMC) of children – practical guidance for doctors PDF, British Medical Association. (2019). Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  15. REFjournal Lempert A, Chegwidden J, Steinfeld R, Earp BD. Non-therapeutic penile circumcision of minors: Current controversies in UK law and medical ethics.. Clinical Ethics. May 2022; Retrieved 20 May 2022.
  16. REFjournal Task Force On Circumcision. Circumcision Policy Statement. Pediatrics. 1 September 2012; 130(3): 585-586. PMID. DOI.
  17. REFweb AAP. TECHNICAL REPORT Male Circumcision.
  18. REFjournal Van Howe RS, Svoboda JS. Out of step: fatal flaws in the latest AAP policy report on neonatal circumcision. Journal of Medical Ethics. 1 July 2013; 39(7): 434-441. PMID. DOI.
  19. a b REFjournal Frisch M, Aigrain Y, Barauskas V, Bjarnason R, Boddy SA, Czauderna P, de Gier RPE, de Jong TPVM, Fasching G. Cultural Bias in the AAP's 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision. Pediatrics. 1 April 2013; 131(4): 796-800. PMID. DOI.
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  26. a b c d 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. Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law. 7(1): 87-123. PMID. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  27. a b c d REFjournal Richards D. Male Circumcision: Medical or Ritual?. Journal of Law and Medicine. May 1996; 3(4): 371-376. Retrieved 11 April 2008.
  28. a b REFbook Somerville M: Altering Baby Boys’ Bodies: The Ethics of Infant Male Circumcision, in: The ethical canary: science, society, and the human spirit. New York, NY: Viking Press. Pp. 202-219. ISBN 0-670-89302-1. Retrieved 12 February 2007.
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  33. a b REFnews (2017)."Ethics committee rules against infant circumcision".
    Quote: 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.
  34. REFbook Beauchamp TL, Childress JF: Principles of Biomedical Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.
  35. a b c d e f g h REFjournal Svoboda JS, Van Howe RS, Dwyer JG. Informed Consent for Neonatal Circumcision: An Ethical and Legal Conundrum. J Contemp Health Law & Policy. 2000; 17: 60-133.
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  39. REFjournal Hill G. Can anyone authorize the nontherapeutic permanent alteration of a child's body? PDF. The American Journal of Bioethics. 2003; 3(2): 16-8. PMID. DOI. Retrieved 11 July 2023.
  40. REFjournal Myers A, Earp BD. What is the best age to circumcise? A medical and ethical analysis PDF. Bioethics. 2020; 34(7): 645-63. PMID. DOI. Retrieved 27 May 2020.
    Quote: Based on a careful consideration of the relevant evidence, arguments and counterarguments, we conclude that medically unnecessary penile circumcision-like other medically unnecessary genital procedures, such as 'cosmetic' labiaplasty-should not be performed on individuals who are too young (or otherwise unable) to provide meaningful consent to the procedure.
  41. REFjournal Adler PW. Is Circumcision Legal?. Richmond J. L. & Pub. Int.. 2013; 16(3): 439.
  42. REFweb Bollinger, Dan (2012). High Cost of Circumcision: $3.6 Billion Annually,, Academia. Retrieved 12 November 2021.
    Quote: As the saying goes, follow the money. Now you know why neither the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, or the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists haven’t condemned this unnecessary surgery, and why their physician members are quick to recommend the procedure to expectant parents.