NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Pediatricians gathered here for the American Academy of Pediatrics convention were greeted by protesters urging the medical group to rethink its position on an issue that makes most people squirm: the circumcision of newborn boys.
And although the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't recommend routine removal of infants' foreskins -- that has been its stance since 1999 -- its report, released two months ago, does cite literature saying that the procedure can prevent urinary-tract infections, cancer of the penis and sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.
Such benefits, the report says, justify its coverage by private insurance and Medicaid. But opponents, who call themselves "intactivists," go beyond mere opposition to the circumcision of healthy infants.
"We say that it's a human-rights violation to tie down a baby and cut off part of his penis," said Georganne Chapin, the founding executive director of Intact America, which held a press conference and rally outside the convention on Saturday (Oct. 20).
The AAP convention continues through Tuesday.
Moreover, she said, "There are absolutely no data suggesting that areas with high circumcision rates have healthier boys or areas with low circumcision rates have less healthy boys."
Data suggest a decline in the percentage of American newborns undergoing the procedure.
Between 1988 and 2000, the percentage of in-hospital circumcisions rose from 48.3 percent to 61.1 percent, according to a study that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last year. But during the next decade, the percentage of circumcisions on newborns dropped, researchers found. They consulted three databases that showed rates of decline ranging from 6.3 percent to 11.3 percent.
The CDC report, which cites research showing that circumcision of adult African men lowered their risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, didn't assign a reason for the decrease in circumcisions.
Anthony Losquadro of Brooklyn, N.Y., who spoke at Saturday's rally at the convention center, said it represents a shift in public opinion.
"Like any change in culture, it takes time," he said, "but I think people realize that babies are born intact and you don't need to correct a perfectly functional body part with surgery."
Although the report did note a drop in circumcisions, it said that in states where Medicaid covered the procedure, the circumcision rates were 24 percent higher than those in states that didn't pay for the operation.
The authors did not take a position on whether newborns should be circumcised. They also took pains to point out that the data they used didn't include circumcisions performed outside hospitals, such as those required for boys born into Jewish and Muslim families.
But the reason for the procedure doesn't matter, said Chapin, whose organization opposes all medically unnecessary circumcisions.
"Our organization is not going after Jews and Muslims," she said. "We're saying that all babies are entitled to protection."
The circumcision debate was renewed recently after a court in Cologne, Germany, banned circumcisions for infant boys. Jewish groups protested, and also protested a recent New York City Board of Health ruling that requires parental consent for a procedure in which a mohel orally sucks the blood for a circumcision incision.
Among the speakers at Saturday's protest were men who were circumcised days after they were born and still profess to be upset by it, even though the procedure occurred decades ago.
"I do feel a sense that my rights were violated on my second day of life," Losquadro said.
The foreskin has a role, he said, because it covers the tip of the penis -- he likened this role to that of an eyelid -- and because it has cells that alert the immune system to potential trouble.
"It evolved for a reason," he said, "and it's foolish for doctors to assume that it's an unneeded flap of skin."
(John Pope writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)