Friday, April 24, 2015

Penile transplants and ritual male circumcision in Africa

It should not be going to too far out on a limb to say that ritual male circumcision is not, and never has been meant to be, a medical intervention. Certainly in sub-Saharan Africa, where it has generally been understood as part of a larger rite of passage from boyhood to manhood, questions of safety, hygiene, pain relief or psychological trauma are typically not concerns central to the ritual. If they were, the use of unsterile instruments by non-surgeons on the un-anesthetized would have led to the disappearance of the practice long ago. The ritual is about risk, not safety; it is about testing an initiate's response to fear, not making the youth feel comfy. And what is more fearful that the threat of a sharp instrument being brought to bear on your private bits? One can be appalled by the practice, but you have to at least acknowledge that it is not an attempt to do the same thing as medical circumcision, except more primatively and with higher complication rates. It has unsafe practices partly because it serves a whole other purpose.

Nevertheless, it is hard to say that penile amputation or death are just the price you pay for ritual male circumcision, and those who think otherwise should just man up. Are you culturally ignorant if you care about and want to protect those who are harmed by traditional circumcision? Are you culturally insensitive if you want to change the practice to reduce harm to persons? One interesting development related to the issue has been the announcement of the first penis transplant. A nine-hour surgery by a South African surgical team late last year transplanted the penis of a dead donor to a young man who had lost his own member due to ritual circumcision complications. To barely-contained chuckles in news reports and the twitter-sphere, the patient enjoyed a rapid recovery, successfully putting his Johnson through its sexual paces only five weeks after surgery. Bad knifework corrected by better surgery, giving hope to all those harmed by ritual.

There are some puzzling and disquieting aspects to the story though. I suppose the first is that I never realized that you could donate your penis. Is this a checkbox on a form? The second is the question -- never answered in any news report that I saw -- whether the donated penis was itself circumcised. If it  wasn't, this could be a first: the first man to be circumcised twice. But most of all I wondered: how many of those who suffer from penile amputation via ritual circumcision are in a position to afford a nine-hour operation? And how will having another man's penis play itself out in their communities? Will it be considered more or less strange than not having one at all? And to what extent is this surgical achievement an adequate response to the deaths and dismemberments of ritual initiates occurring each year, rather than showcasing what powerful medical institutions are able to do?

Prevention rather than treatment is probably the only realistic way to cut down on the morbidity and mortality associated with ritual male circumcision. The problem is that it is unclear how to minimize the harm associated with the practice without significantly altering its meaning. Probably no headway will be made until the adherents themselves (and not just outsiders) regard the deaths and mutilations as matters of deep moral concern, rather than something that just comes with the ritual territory.

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