Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin of the penis. It is part of religious custom for Jews and many Muslims, for reasons that have been lost to history. The popularity of circumcision in other groups of men has waxed and waned depending on prevailing notions of health, cleanliness, and parental preference.
For example, the percentage of US men who were circumcised rose steadily from about 30% in the 1930s to 90% in the 1970s. Since then the rate has been dropping: about 64% of American male infants were circumcised in 1995.
Some recent studies show that circumcision has some clear medical benefits. The most dramatic is that circumcised men have a much-reduced risk of acquiring HIV from women, which is a significant factor in countries with a high general prevalence of HIV. (Whether circumcision reduces HIV transmission between men is still an open question.)
In addition, a recent study found that circumcision reduced the risk of genital herpes by 28% and the risk of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) by 35%. Other studies have shown that circumcision reduces the risk of penile cancer. Finally, removing the foreskin also allows men to avoid medical problems of the foreskin, the most common of which is phimosis, the inability of the foreskin to retract from the head of the penis. This can be a painful condition that can interfere with both sexuality and fertility.
Circumcision has only been shown to reduce a few STDs, however. It doesn’t protect against diseases such as syphilis or gonorrhea. In no way should circumcision be seen as providing the kind of protection from STDs that a latex condom confers: condoms are the best protection against such diseases, whether you are circumcised or not.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has not yet revised its current stance against infant circumcision, but the evidence in favor of circumcision is building.
In the meantime, I’m comfortable with the position of the American Urological Association, which says that infant circumcision has potential medical benefits and advantages as well as potential disadvantages and some very small risks, therefore the decision about whether to snip or not to snip should be left to the parents in consultation with their health care provider.