by Lillian Dell’Aquila Cannon
This week we have another wonderful “new” reason to circumcise making the rounds in the American media: they say it prevents prostate cancer! But does it really? Let’s think about it. Is amputation of a newborn’s body parts a viable way to reduce cancer rates?
First, let’s look at breast cancer. All women have a 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer in their lifetimes. About 1/5 of these women will die from breast cancer. My mother had breast cancer and survived. Her mother died from ovarian cancer. The history of hormonally-linked cancers in my family increases my chances of getting breast cancer. I should have had my daughter’s breast buds removed at birth. Then she would have 0% chance of dying of breast cancer. She doesn’t really need them. They don’t do much sexually, and babies are just fine with formula. Do you think this is a good idea? If not, why not?
Now let’s talk about that prostate cancer article. They claimed that circumcision before the first time having sex is linked to a 15% decrease of prostate cancer. The claim is, if 100 men would have got prostate cancer, circumcision would have prevented 15 of those cases. But would it have prevented 15 deaths? No, because only 9% of men with prostate cancer die of it. 9% of 15 men is only one man. If this study is correct, we would circumcise 100 babies for one life to be saved. Do you think this is a good idea? Maybe if you don’t understand the functions of the foreskin.
But wait… the article said that it had to do with infection, linking foreskin to STD to inflammation to prostate cancer. This is a long string of causality, none of which has been proven. Correlation does not equal causation. Even if it did, we’re back to that old chestnut: even if the foreskin made one more vulnerable to STDs, could the same benefit be had just by wearing a condom, which men should be doing anyway? Despite what the pro-circumcision people would have you believe, the foreskin does not increase STD rates. If you compare STD rates in the U.S. and western Europe, they are just about the same, despite the U.S. having mostly circumcised adult men, and circumcision being rare in Europe.
So is there actually a link between circumcision and prostate cancer? According to the World Health Organization, prostate cancer rates are highest in developed countries. Dr. Momma has a lovely graphic showing prostate cancer rates on a map of the world. Looking at that map, you might think that prostate cancer is actually linked to being circumcised, not being intact!
So what exactly is going on here? Why was this article trumpeted all over the U.S. media? This article is actually a compliment to intactivists everywhere. We’re making such a difference that the pro-circumcision people are scared. They are paying attention and they know they have to work hard to try to stop the drop of circumcision rates in the U.S. This article is the same old stuff they always put out, but they already tried this one way back in the 1940s. To sum up: foreskins are dirty, diseased and will kill you. This one ups the ante by saying you have to have it done before you have sex, thus sidestepping the ethical argument that the adult man can decide the risks and benefits himself. But if you read between the lines, it is one correlative study showing no causal link. There was no experiment here – they likely just used a simple survey:
-Are you circumcised? [But 30% of men don't know their own circumcision status, so unless they dropped their pants for the researchers, this is a major flaw.]
-When were you circumcised? [Same problem as above.]
-Do you have prostate cancer?
That was likely the whole study. These are ridiculously easy to do, but they always have to end with “further study is needed” in order to see if there is a causal link. Can you see that study happening? “We’re going to circumcise some babies at birth, some right after their first time having sex, we’ll follow their every sexual encounter to see if they used condoms and what diseases their partners had, oh, and we’ll track their diet to control for other inflammatory conditions and factors, and then wait 70 years to see what happens?” Well, in 70 years, prostate cancer will likely be a thing of the past, as bad as getting a cold. Why deprive a man of his whole penis to possibly prevent a disease that he may never get or may be no big deal in 70 years?
That brings it back to the central social-psychological-sexual-cultural problem: in our culture, we do not value the foreskin. Because many people have not experienced it sexually and only know rumors like “It’s gross” and “It’s dirty,” articles like this seem exciting. What that shows is how much progress intactivism is making. They are scared enough that they are trying everything they can to make a case for it. Note that you ONLY see articles like this in the U.S. – in Europe where nearly everyone is intact, the idea that you would circumcise your baby to prevent a cancer of old age is ridiculous.
The reason why articles like this are somewhat successful here in the U.S. is two-fold. First, we have a large population of circumcised men who feel under attack by intactivism. They grew up thinking that being circumcised was good both sexually and health-wise, but now they see all these people saying that it is neither. This is a terrible thought – that they are missing the most fun part of the penis for no good reason – so anything that allows them to think that their circumcision actually was beneficial is very attractive. It’s just simple confirmation bias. Second, it is extremely hard for the average person to understand that science and medicine are not culture-free absolute universals, but intimately tied up in culture. The general ignorance of anthropology is part of the greater problem of scientific illiteracy. Most people see science as existing in a bias- and culture-free realm in which all study results are more “truthy” than anything than any other source of information. Even most college-educated people do not understand the limits of science as an epistemology, and some go so far as to only value science, discounting philosophy, history and all other humanities. They fail to see whose interests articles like these serve, and bristle at the idea that science and medicine could ever be subject to the human failings of wishful thinking, deception and dishonesty. If that is what you think, it is time to wake up: science and medicine are just as vulnerable to bias and outright lying as any other discipline.
“Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation … Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
“Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”