On Saturday in Brad’s and my natural childbirth class, denture we watched a video which (in a short segment at the end) claimed that male circumcision was sexual assault and that abolishing it was one of five or six things that would help improve infant mortality rates. (I have the video at home and I will post the exact claims when I have a chance to review.) I proclaimed this claim “not charitable to the Jews” which instigated a discussion about the health risks of the practice.
I am not a fan of circumcision, but the claim that male circumcision has any adverse health effects on little babies struck me as wrong. Our instructor (who is to be commended for following up) provided us after class with the following statistics:

No one keeps records of circ deaths in the US. Doctors agree the
number of botched circ’s are under reported. Deaths are even harder
to count- due to the fact that the death maybe attributed to another
cause- infection, menigitis, urethral blockage etc. There have only
been 2-3 circ deaths in the medical literature, as case studies, since
the 1950’s.

Guestimated death rate for Circ in the US is reported to be- 2-3 per
year, or as many as 229 per year, depending on the source.

Here is my response:

I’ll have time to look at these numbers later in the week, but these statistics prove my point, which is that the movie is deeply misleading, if not outright false, when it says that abolishing circumcision is one of 5 or 6 important things to do to improve the infant mortality rate. Even if I take Charity’s highest guestimate, 229 US deaths per year, as true, the death rate among boys from circumcision (with about 2M boys born alive every year) is .01%. (or .016 if we just count the approx 70% that are circumcised). This is hardly a killer worth noting compared with prematurity, birth defects, drug abuse, SIDS, or the other double-digit infant killers. If we wanted to stop infant mortality, there are far more productive places to put our efforts, ones which perhaps don’t have the ideological heft of “sexual assault”, don’t point the finger at the practices of religious minorities, but are more uncomfortable for the powers-that-be. For example, the number one cause of infant mortality last year was prematurity, and one of the three major causes of prematurity is carrying multiples (cigarettes and drugs are the other two), and so many more (rich, white) people are having multiples now because of fertility assistance like IVF. That would be a more productive thing to attack, but of course, its far more politically unpalatable.

Of course, the 229 number is flagrantly, recklessly false. About 28000 babies die every year. Of those, I assume half were boys, 14000. If 229 of them died from circumcision, that would be an incredible 1.6% of the deaths that occur attributable to circumcision. That would mean that circumcision, while still at the bottom, is a more likely cause of death than menengitis, heart attack, bronchitus or a host of other baby diseases. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/infant_health.htm (Cover up, anyone?) Later if I have time I’ll try to track down where that number came from.

I’d be interested in what information and thoughts readers have, both about circumcision and about the broader question of how the medical establishment and the media dispense information about health risks. Maybe I’ll hear from my colleague Prof. Dan Harrison, who I know is an expert on the sociology of circumcision!
Did you know the government can track your movements by your cell phone? And while courts are struggling to define whether agents need probable cause to follow your prospective movements, internist
a new decision out of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts says they only need to show relevance to get a record of your past movements. Read more about this in my latest Wired News column Is That Big Brother In Your Pocket?