VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- The biblical tradition of circumcision continues to be questioned even though research shows its public health benefits.
Earlier this year, activists in San Francisco, Calif., tried to ban the practice, and 18 states have now defunded Medicaid coverage for it.
It's an issue that more than four million parents of baby boys in the U.S. must decide each year. The American Academy of Pediatrics so far is neutral on the subject.
So faith, family, friends and the Internet have become powerful forces in shaping attitudes.
Influence of Friends
Kristin and Damien Cooney are one couple that decided to circumcise their two boys, now ages 5 and 1 year old.
However, Kristin Cooney said she was surprised at the pressure she felt from some other new parents.
"When some friends of mine found out I was having a boy, they started emailing me and calling me saying they had had boys and they hadn't gotten them circumcised and they started telling me the reasons why," she recalled.
For awhile, Cooney said she considered forgoing the procedure.
"I think just out of my motherly compassion I just didn't want to put him through that right away," she told CBN News.
Painful and Unnecessary?
The growing anti-circumcision movement says circumcision should be avoided because it is both painful and unnecessary.
In fact, groups like Intact America, go so far as to compare circumcision to female genital mutilation.
"To me, the question is why on earth would you cut a normal healthy body part off of a baby?" said Georganne Chapin, founder and executive director of Intact America.
"People are starting to question more what's been a common practice of medicine," Chapin explained. "They're willing to question their doctors, willing to go on the Internet and do research."
"They're realizing that it really doesn't make any sense that baby boys are born needing surgery," she said.
Circumcision advocates like Dr. Daniel Halperin said it's uncommon for babies to experience complications. Halperin is an adjunct associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Global Public Health.
More importantly, he said there are many health benefits.
"In recent years there's been a lot more data certainly in terms of HIV and other STD's," Halperin noted.
Randomized trials in Africa have shown:
- Circumcision reduces the risk of heteroseuxally acquired HIV by 60 percent.
- Circumcised baby boys are 10 times less likely to have urinary tract infections.
- Circumcised men are less likely to have penile cancer while their female partners are less likely to suffer from cervical cancer.
In the October Journal of the American Medical Association researchers noted that the evidence for circumcision's public health benefits has grown "substantially."
Researchers urged that parents be provided with the latest information so they can make an informed choice for their children.
Dropped Medicaid Coverage
So it's ironic that as the research supporting circumcision gains attention among the medical community that states like Colorado are dropping their Medicaid coverage for it.
State senator and physician Dr. Irene Aguilar voted against dropping Colorado's coverage.
"I see the decision not to pay for circumcision as penny-wise and dollar-poor," she said. "It's a very low-cost item on our budget, $186,000 a year, but the diseases it has the potential for protecting people from are great."
As more states drop their coverage, the circumcision rates are also expected to drop. That could potentially affect the health of the general population.
Right now about 80 percent of American men are circumcised, but the latest hospital surveys show the rate dropping dramatically to 56 percent.
"The data has certainly been accumulating for the benefits of male circumcision," Halperin said. "But at the same time, some of the opponents have turned up the volume. So I think for some of the people it's a little bit confusing still."
Strong endorsements on circumcision from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy for Pediatrics could clear up the confusion.
Both organizations are currently reviewing the latest scientific evidence and may soon issue policy recommendations.
If they weigh in in favor of circumcision, it would likely encourage pediatricians to advocate for the procedure with parents.
Respect for Old Testament Tradition
For many parents of faith, religious beliefs heavily influence their decision. This year Muslims, Jews, and Christians joined with medical professionals in San Francisco to fight a proposed circumcision ban.
For many Christian parents, circumcision falls in line with respect for Old Testament practices.
"We thought about there's health benefits, but more for us it was more of a decision because it was biblical even though we don't live under the Old Testament," new mother Cinde Beacham said.
"I thought if it is so bad and it really is a form of mutilation, why would God ask His chosen people to be circumcised?" said Kristin Cooney.
What has become clear for this next generation is that circumcision is more than just a faith tradition. It's also a practice that leads to better personal and public health.