Circumcision Debate Heats Up After Baby Dies

A baby boy in Canada died following a routine circumcision. Now the debate here in the US is raging over whether the procedure is safe or necessary.

Circumcision Debate Heats Up After Baby Dies leungchopan/Shutterstock

A 22-day-old baby boy died in Ontario recently after receiving a routine circumcision. The child's parents said they did not want the procedure for their son, a view-point that coincides with that of the Canadian Pediatric Society. But after being persuaded by a family physician, the parents eventually agreed.

The baby, Ryan Heydari, bled to death following the procedure. The baby's grieving parents, John Heydari and Homa Ahmadi, who immigrated from Iran 12 years ago, said in written statements that they knew something was wrong almost immediately due to his crying and fussiness and the amount of bleeding coming from the wound. Most Canadian boys are no longer routinely circumcised, only about 32 percent, and the pediatric society has long maintained that the risks, such as the kind of bleeding in this case, outweigh any real or perceived benefits of circumcision.

A debate ensues

In the wake of this tragedy, the circumcision debate here in the United States is heating up. Intactivist groups (groups against circumcision), along with thousands of others, are outraged over what they believe is a pointless death from a procedure that is not routinely necessary. While the rate of disastrous complications such as this one, is very low, they do occur. And since this is an elective procedure, all deaths related to circumcision are preventable. Other more common risks associated with the procedure are pain, infection, excess bleeding and disruptions in infant breathing. In some cases adverse reactions to the anesthesia have also been reported.

The organization, Intact America, posted about the event on its Facebook page proclaiming, "it should be illegal to remove the genitalia of boys, just as it is to remove the genitals of girls. One thing that would have spared this baby: leaving him intact."

Of course not everyone agrees that leaving the foreskin intact is the best choice. One of the most common reasons for circumcising in the US is for religious purposes. Another consideration we hear often is "cleanliness" or "risk of infection," which is not unfounded. Intact males do get more urinary tract infections than circumcised males by a large margin, 90% more according to WebMD. However, little girls have far more doctor visits each year for UTIs than both intact and circumcised males. "Intactivists" advise that learning to take care of the foreskin with proper cleaning makes more sense than cutting off a functional piece of the human body. A slight increase in the risk for penile cancer is another consideration, though the chances of developing it is quite low, far lower than, say, breast cancer, and of course, we don't go around removing everyone's breasts except in cases of severe family history. And in that case, that choice belongs to the patient.

Falling rates

Over the past 35 years, circumcision rates have fallen rather drastically. In 2007 only about 55.4% of families chose to circumcise at birth, down from 64.9% in 1981. Valerie Campbell, whose son was born earlier this year says that she and her husband did originally plan to circumcise their son, mainly because they didn't want him to be "the odd one out." But after more research on the topic she says they found out that fewer American parents were choosing to circumcise, meaning her son would not be the only one intact. "I also feel that it is a violation of human rights to perform such a permanent procedure on someone's body, when that person is unable to consent to the procedure." But those who are pro-circumcision say the choice should remain up to the parents.

In 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics said there is "insignificant evidence" to recommend the procedure routinely, then revised the statement in 2012 to say that "the health benefits of circumcision outweigh the risks." And many doctors, as well as parents, believe in the benefits of the procedure. However, it's clear that this is more than just a medical decision, which is why many have such strong feelings about the debate.

Since physicians and medical findings seem to be just as divided on the issue as parents, it is more important now than ever that mothers and fathers of little boys do their own research when deciding whether or not to cut. As with any surgical procedure, especially involving an infant, it is important to consider all possible risks involved and make an informed decision.