This Point Cuts Both Ways

David Harsanyi

8/27/2009 8:35:15 PM - David Harsanyi

Forget death panels. If you're really interested in putting a stop to the public option (and some truly entertaining town hall meetings), let's talk circumcision panels.

Growing up in the Jewish faith, I witnessed my fair share of 7-day-olds taken from their parents to face scalpel, prayer and barbaric snip. Why seven days? Undoubtedly, the number of Jewish boys converting to Methodism grows exponentially each day the foreskin remains attached.

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According to Genesis, God commanded 99-year-old Abraham to circumcise himself, everyone in his household, and even his slaves -- as they, apparently, didn't have enough on their plates -- to close the covenant. Those who were not circumcised were removed, as it were, from this holy deal with God.

Now people at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (those folks who often carry themselves as if they, too, had the ear of the Lord) are mulling a national campaign to promote "universal circumcision" for all boys in the United States in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV. Additionally, as The New York Times reported this week, the CDC is thinking about expanding the campaign to target promiscuous adult heterosexual men. (Abstinence or circumcision? How quickly do you think sex becomes overrated?)

Newborn circumcision rates are at 65 percent but have dropped for decades since just after World War II, when they were at more than 80 percent. This might be partially attributable to immigration of non-circumcising populations. There are also various movements afoot that question both the health benefits and the morality of slicing a newborn.

I do not possess any ironclad opinion on the topic of circumcision -- and perhaps not so coincidentally, I also do not have a son. Many of you, I assume, are foreskin-neutral.

Studies suggest that circumcision can help prevent HIV, though it has not shown to help those with the greatest risk, men having sex with men. One also suspects -- or perhaps hopes -- that ancient cultures simultaneously concocted the circumcision ritual because, through some instinctual trigger, they sensed it was hygienically beneficial.

Here's the problem: Why is the CDC launching campaigns to "universally" promote a medical procedure? If you're an adult (and nuts) or a parent, no one stands in your way of having a bris. Today 79 percent of men are circumcised already, and even if 100 percent were, the effect on the collective health of the nation would be negligible. If this is the standard, where does it stop?

And what would a proactive CDC mean if government operated health insurance? No, I don't believe Washington would deploy a phalanx of grinning, twisted doctors to perform coerced circumcisions. But when the CDC dispenses medical advice of the "universal" brand, it's difficult to accept that a government-run public insurance outfit wouldn't heed advice and act accordingly.

What if the CDC, through meticulous study, were to realize that circumcision is an entirely worthless procedure? Why would "we" waste $400 a pop? Would the CDC campaign to "universally remove" the operation from hospitals? Today, incidentally, government-run Medicaid doesn't pay for the procedure in 16 states. Most private insurers, on the other hand, do.

Though dismissed by public-option proponents, this is an example of how government persuasion can influence our decisions -- first by nudging and then, inevitably, by rationing.

The larger, more pertinent point for today is that government has zero business running campaigns -- and these things inevitably turn into scaremongering efforts -- that try to influence our choices regarding our children and our bodies. Especially when the procedure has so little to do with society's collective health. Circumcision is a personal choice.

Well, a personal choice for everyone except that poor little sucker lying on the chopping block.