The current plan to circumcise 20 million African adults and countless millions of African infants arose purely from the prevailing view that HIV is almost always transmitted sexually in African countries. If we had tested that view years ago and modified it appropriately in the light of available evidence, the issue of aggressively promoting circumcision and spending billions of dollars of 'aid' money on it would never have arisen. It would have been clear that HIV is not exclusively transmitted through sexual contact, that it is also transmitted through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices.
If circumcision reduces HIV transmission, it could only reduce sexual transmission, not transmission through other modes. It is also only claimed to reduce sexual transmission from females to males; it may increase transmission from males to females and, given that prevalence is higher, often much higher among females in African countries, this may result in circumcision programs increasing HIV transmission overall. In addition, African countries' crumbling health systems would not be able to provide tens of millions of safe male circumcisions; the most basic health services are denied to most people and available services are known to be very unsafe.
We have privileged HIV above all other diseases and we have privileged sexual transmission above all other modes of transmission. By doing this, we have stigmatized every African as sexually promiscuous and every HIV positive African as paying the price for their own behavior; yet we fail to acknowledge that HIV is not always transmitted sexually. So why are circumcisions now carried out so readily in countries where most other kinds of operation and medical procedure are unavailable? Even where other procedures may save people's lives, disproportionate amounts of money are spent on sexually transmitted HIV, including in areas where HIV is certainly not the highest priority, sometimes not even a low priority.
Therefore, in the interest of safe healthcare for all, it is necessary to oppose mass male circumcision programs. They will not reduce HIV transmission much, if at all; they will not be carried out in contexts where safe healthcare is generally available; and they will be carried out in countries where the most common causes of illness and death are generally ignored, despite being far higher priorities than HIV or sexual health. For example, there is an urgent need to address reproductive health more broadly, the overall health of women, infants and children and the health of men who are not HIV positive, nor at risk of being infected through their sexual behavior. Diseases that relate to living conditions, such as TB, that infect far more people than in countries where living conditions are better, also need to be addressed. There are also water-borne diseases that infect, debilitate and kill millions because of lack of access to clean water and sanitation.
HIV needs to be put in perspective; it is a virus, one of many, sometimes sexually transmitted, sometimes non-sexually transmitted. We don't even have any idea of the extent of non-sexual transmission, so we can neither tell how much transmission mass male circumcision could avert, if any, nor can we tell how many people are likely to be infected and/or to infect others as a result of the circumcision programs. Mass male circumcision is part of a much bigger picture, and it's because the bigger picture of HIV is distorted by Western obsession with 'African' sexual behavior that we've ended up with something as stupid as mass male circumcision. People are being denied their right to health care, to safe healthcare, to bodily integrity and to many other things. Circumcision is just one problem and the mass male circumcision problem grew out of our failure to address non-sexually transmitted HIV, safe healthcare and all the more important development areas in developing countries.
I am not an 'intactivist' and I don't advocate for 'intactivism', not because genital integrity is too small or too unimportant an issue; it's because it is just a part of a much bigger picture. Most human rights are being denied in some developing countries, not just a handful of rights. Genital integrity is just a part of something that is too big to ignore: bodily integrity and the other human rights that are being denied to those who are denied their right to bodily integrity. Circumcision itself may do harm, it may do good, it may do nothing. But it is the aggressive promotion of mass male circumcision programs in places where most forms of healthcare are unavailable and most available healthcare is not safe that is most objectionable.
If anyone tells you that healthcare services fail people in high HIV prevalence countries because of stigma, health seeking behaviors, culture, education, tradition, or anything else, remember that healthcare services are far more likely to fail because they are not available to most people; where they are available, they are likely to be unsafe. This is not to say that stigma is not an issue, but it is one that arises from the view, mentioned above, that HIV is almost always transmitted through heterosexual sex in African countries. Education also fails people, and not just in relation to health. Health seeking behaviors, culture, tradition and other issues may well be important issues. But they are of less importance where access to healthcare is poor and where that healthcare is not safe.
Despite lengthy (and lucrative) campaigns telling us that everyone is at equal risk of being infected with HIV, that HIV is an 'equal opportunities' virus, that it's all about sexual behavior, etc, it has long been clear that risk is most definitely not 'equal'. Both men and women who are receptive sexual partners face a very high sexual risk. Men who only engage in insertive sex (i.e. most heterosexual men) and who have no other risks are very unlikely to become infected, so women face higher sexual risks than men. Intravenous drug use is the second biggest risk in most rich countries. But the extent of non-sexual infection through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices in high HIV prevalence countries is not well known and is often not even acknowledged.
In wealthy countries circumcision stands out as an anomaly, where female genital mutilation (FGM) is viewed as a denial of the right to bodily integrity. We don't need to argue against FGM on the grounds that it causes physical (and psychological) damage, or that it may present problems later on in life. The fact that there is a right to bodily integrity is enough, but the anomaly stems from the fact that male circumcision is not seen as a denial of the right to bodily integrity. Some argue for male circumcision as a religious or cultural right, and that is not a problem, as long as it is the adult individual who makes the decision, not the parent.
But in developing countries, there is nothing anomalous about programs funded by Western governments telling people what is good for their health, regardless of broken down and unsafe health facilities, cultural and religious practices, or even human rights. FGM is opposed on grounds that should also be used to argue against male circumcision, yet male circumcision is promoted with the claim that it reduces sexual transmission of a virus, in the full knowledge that the virus is not always transmitted sexually and that it may be transmitted through circumcision itself. Western countries were once opposed to breastfeeding. Indeed, it may have been Western churches that once opposed circumcision in parts of Africa, or at least deemed it unnecessary for people who had been converted to Western religions. Claimed health benefits do not justify mass male circumcision programs.
In developing countries, circumcision is just one issue out of many, the tip of the iceberg. If we were to forget circumcision and concentrate all our attention on some other issue tomorrow no one would be any worse off. Singling out HIV, circumcision or any other issue, divorced from the context that gives rise to the issue, is part of the problem. If we didn't believe the lie that HIV is almost always transmitted sexually in African countries, we wouldn't even be questioning the wisdom of mass male circumcision, and those promoting it would not have received billions of dollars to ride roughshod over African people.
If it was decided that some other kind of intervention reduced HIV transmission, such as giving HIV positive people ARVs long before there is a clinical benefit (it's called Treatment as Prevention) or giving HIV negative people ARVs because they have or may have a HIV positive partner (it's called PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis) or give lifelong ARV treatment to pregnant women, rather than a short course of ARVs (it's called B+), those may become as aggressively promoted as circumcision. Sadly, all three of these are already being aggressively promoted even though the net benefit may be low and there may be very serious consequences in terms of transmission rates and health more broadly.
We don't have to do research to know that people need safe healthcare, education, infrastructure and the like, but we seem to avoid getting involved in these basic human rights and instead allude to things like corruption and culture and whatever else journalists and academics tell us is pertinent. Mass male circumcision programs are not wrong because they won't work or because circumcision reduces sensitivity or has anything else to do with sex or the penis. They are wrong because people have a right to bodily integrity, to safe healthcare and to many other things that are currently denied to them.
This is not merely a logical or academic argument against circumcision; we know that we couldn't carry out such programs on our own fellow country people, regardless of any claimed benefits, public health or otherwise; so why are we even discussing doing so in African countries? Aggressive promotion of mass male circumcision programs in African countries, mainly funded and carried out using US money, has got to stop.
[For more about non-sexual HIV transmission and mass male circumcision, see the Don't Get Stuck With HIV site.]