Circumcision: Doctors Fail to Obtain Valid Consent

April 29, 2001

Attorneys for the Rights of the Child

2961 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705 Phone 510-595-5550

CONTACT: J. Steven Svoboda 510-595-5550 ( )

CIRCUMCISION: DOCTORS FAIL TO OBTAIN VALID CONSENT

Berkeley, CA - Doctors who circumcise infants violate the legal requirement of a valid, informed consent, thereby exposing themselves to lawsuits. That is the conclusion of an article recently published in a major legal journal by a team of lawyers and doctors.

The article, "Informed Consent for Neonatal Circumcision—An Ethical and Legal Conundrum" appears in the Winter 2000 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy. It was written by J. Steven Svoboda, a Harvard-educated attorney and Executive Director of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (ARC); Robert S. Van Howe, M.D., a pediatrician at the Marshfield Clinic - Lakeland Center in Minocqua, Wisconsin and Clinical Instructor at the Medical College of Wisconsin; and Assistant Professor James G. Dwyer of the William and Mary College of Law in Williamsburg, Virginia.

No physicians regard neonatal circumcision as necessary, according to the authors, and it is performed on newborns who are incapable of consenting to the procedure. Medical professionals routinely fail to provide parents of newborn boys with the information they need in order to make a knowledgeable decision about the surgery. By disregarding requirements for securing informed consent, doctors risk lawsuits from regretful parents and circumcised males. "Infant circumcision seriously breaches the child's rights and—even when uninformed parents 'consent' to the procedure—is utterly incompatible with the physician's legal and ethical duties toward the child patient," Svoboda said "A parent's consent cannot justify removal of healthy tissue - whether it be a finger, a breast, a clitoris, or a foreskin - without a valid medical reason."

Several circumcision cases have been settled or decided for significant sums, including a $10 million lawsuit by an Ohio boy who lost the tip of his penis in a circumcision which was settled in 1999. Cases are underway where parental consent was inadequately informed. The article lays the groundwork for legal challenges to "successful" circumcisions even where parents gave "informed consent." One such lawsuit is already underway on behalf of an 18-year-old man in New York.

Svoboda pointed out that the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) both affirm the absence of any medical reason capable of justifying neonatal circumcision. Consent to such a procedure can never be given by the patient, the newborn infant, and no medical emergency exists. Also, non-medical cultural or religious norms are irrelevant to medical decision-making and cannot justify the procedure. Therefore no valid consent to newborn circumcision is possible.

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