My Letter to the American Academy of Pediatrics
On August 29, Intact America launched an email campaign, inviting our followers to tell the American Academy of Pediatrics what they think about the new Circumcision Task Force’s Technical Report on Circumcision. The Report, which concedes that the purported health benefits of infant circumcision are not great enough to justify recommending it, and that the risks of circumcision have not been adequately documented, somehow concludes that the “benefits” outweigh the risks. The Report also states that the decision to circumcise baby boys, who cannot consent to have this unethical, medically unnecessary surgery performed on their bodies, should be left to the parents, and, that parents’ non-medical decision to have their child’s genitals unjustifiably altered should be abetted by having Medicaid and private insurance companies pay doctors to do the cutting.
Here’s my letter:
Dear AAP Leadership,
What were you thinking?
How can you approve a report that extols the benefits of removing the foreskin, a normal body part, without one single word devoted to the function of that body part, or why it’s there in the first place? How credible is such a report, which neglects to mention that the vast majority of the world’s men are intact (or as the report says, “uncircumcised”), and that these men do just fine?
What were you thinking when you deputized as co-author of the report a doctor who has openly boasted about circumcising his own son? The American Medical Association’s code of ethics (AMA E8.19) states: “Physicians generally should not treat themselves or members of their immediate families” … “In particular, minor children will generally not feel free to refuse care from their parents.” In 2009, the AAP’s own Committee on Bioethics clearly stated that pediatricians who treat their own children “violate a fundamental professional obligation.”* How can we trust the neutrality or the ethics of a Task Force member who so flagrantly violated his own organization’s bioethical principles?
What were you thinking when you named a specialist in adult sexually transmitted diseases to chair a Task Force to examine infant circumcision? Babies and children don’t have sex, and thus they are not at risk of contracting an STD. It seems to me, by selecting this individual as chair, the Task Force already knew what it was looking to conclude.
Would it not have been relevant for the Task Force to mention the limitations of its recommendations? Specifically, even if circumcision were to confer some protection from HIV for adult heterosexual men, as claimed by the studies cited, it was found to confer none for women, or for men having sex with men, or for intravenous drug users. And, again, it confers no protection for babies and children. Furthermore, shouldn’t the Report have mentioned that if or when an adolescent or adult becomes at risk, there are other nonsurgical ways of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases? Shouldn’t the words “safe sex” or “condom” or “abstinence” have appeared at least once in the Report?
Given the Task Force’s unequivocal conclusion that the “health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks,” are you not concerned by the Report’s utter failure to address the risks? Specifically, how do you justify the contradictions and doublespeak in the following statements?
The true incidence of complications after newborn circumcision is unknown, in part due to differing definitions of “complication” and differing standards for determining the timing of when a complication has occurred (i.e., early or late). Adding to the confusion is the comingling of “early” complications, such as bleeding or infection, with late complications such as adhesions and meatal stenosis…. (p. 772)
Based on the data reviewed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to adequately assess the total impact of complications, because the data are scant and inconsistent regarding the severity of complications. (p. 775)
The majority of severe or even catastrophic injuries [such as] glans or penile amputation, … methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection, urethral cutaneous fistula, glans ischemia, and death are so infrequent as to be reported as case reports (and were therefore excluded from this literature review). (p. 774)
Did you not notice any potential liability problems for the AAP and for pediatricians who circumcise that might arise as a result of the Report? For example, while discussing the Mogen clamp in its review of complications from particular circumcision techniques and tools, the Report says:
There were no specific studies of complications … because complications are rare; thus, one can only rely on available case reports of amputation. (p. 775)
No note is made of the fact that the manufacturer of the Mogen is bankrupt, due to lawsuits resulting from these “rare” complications and amputations, and that any doctor sued for an adverse outcome from a Mogen will be on his own (unless, of course, he can implicate the AAP for failing to inform him of the facts). Also, the review of techniques and tools neglects to cross-reference a mention elsewhere of “devastating burns” that can occur when electrocautery is used in conjunction with the metal Gomco clamp. Sloppy, at best.
Did anybody think to ask why no data has ever been found in the developed world showing a correlation between circumcision and disease? Since when is sub-Saharan Africa, with high rates of poverty, illiteracy, and disease, the gold-standard comparison population for American pediatrics? Did anybody wonder how it can be that Europe, where very few men have been circumcised, has lower rates of STDs and HIV than the U.S. and better overall health status, along with lower per capita health expenditures?
Has the leadership of the AAP, knowing that a Task Force was preparing recommendations about infant circumcision, noticed that medical associations in European countries are increasingly calling for doctors to refuse to perform this surgery, on the basis that it is risky, medically unnecessary, and a violation of the child’s rights? How can you completely ignore the principles and actions of your learned colleagues in other countries?
Did anybody ask the Task Force to make sure its Report was consistent with other AAP policies, including the statement by the AAP’s own Committee on Bioethics on “Informed Consent, Parental Permission, and Assent in Pediatric Practice”? The policy, still in effect, states in part:
Proxy consent poses serious problems for pediatric health care providers. Such providers have legal and ethical duties to their child patients to render competent medical care based on what the patient needs, not what someone else expresses… [The] pediatrician’s responsibilities to his or her patient exist independent of parental desires or proxy consent. (p. 315)
In placing the burden of deciding whether to circumcise their sons squarely on the shoulders of parents (who are not medical professionals), is the Task Force Report on Circumcision contradicting this statement on Informed Consent? By referencing religion and culture as valid elements in parental decision-making (p. 759), is the Report attempting to give doctors a free pass? Religion and culture (in the American context) generally lead to circumcisions, but human rights, medical ethics and the mandate to doctors to do no harm clearly lead to leaving a boy intact.
Most important, have you not noticed the growing outcry among parents, complaining that they were duped by doctors into agreeing to allow harmful surgery to be performed on their baby boys? Are you ignoring the growing body of complaints from adult men protesting that they were robbed of an important part of their sexual anatomy, without their consent?
Are any of these considerations not relevant to the pediatrician who would strap down a helpless, screaming baby and cut off part of his penis?
I look forward to your response.
Georganne Chapin, MPhil, JD
* Committee on Bioethics, Pediatrician-Family-Patient Relationship: Managing the Boundaries. Pediatrics 124(6), Dec. 1, 2009: 1685-88.