Letter: Circumcision myths

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The Independent Culture
Sir: As the lively correspondence on the thorny subject of circumcision has shown, humans display a marked preference for comforting myths rather than new scientific discoveries.

Angela West's letter (1 October) shows that the myth that male circumcision prevents cervical cancer is still attractive even though it was conclusively disproved in a series of classic studies in the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, current epidemiological studies show that cervical cancer, and, indeed, all cancers, are far more prevalent in circumcising Islamic countries than in Europe. The crucial factor, however, is living standards in Third World nations.

Numerous studies (including a classic study in the British Medical Journal of 2 December 1995) prove that the rate of penile cancer is twice as high in the US, where circumcision is de rigueur, as in Europe or Japan. The same is true of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Likewise, the myth that a circumcised penis is more hygienic has been disproved in a detailed study published in the November 1997 issue of the British Journal of Urology. Researchers found the obvious: a penis denuded of its protective covering is more exposed to dirt and contamination.

Additionally, P J Stewart's helpful reference to the old speculation that circumcision may have arisen as a way to prevent sand collecting under the foreskin (letter, 1 October) is a reminder that this myth was laid to rest by anatomical investigations published as long ago as August 1973 in the Journal of Urology. Experts found that foreign objects, such as sand, are flushed out of the foreskin with every micturition. Up-to- date scientists have agreed, then, that a foreskin can be comfortably and safely worn on any occasion and in any clime.

It would seem, then, that those with a pre-existing bias in favour of circumcision will justify it by whatever means, including medicalised myths. As one astute medical observer put it, "the desire to mutilate came first; the `reasons' came later."


Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine

University of Oxford