The new politics of male circumcision: HIV/AIDS, health law and social justice

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  • Keele University


This paper engages with a changing politics of male circumcision. It suggests that various shifts which have occurred in how the issue is debated challenge legal constructions of the practice as a private familial issue. Although circumcision rates have declined in those Western nations which have traditionally practised it, the procedure is now being promoted as a medicalised response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Such initiatives propose a new biomedical rationale for the practice and have been difficult to confine to the African context or to adult bodies, prompting a resurgence of enthusiasm for neonatal male circumcision on the part of professional bodies in the USA and elsewhere. Although we have reservations about such public health policies, which we suggest downplay risks inherent in the procedure both for the individual and for the advancement of public health, we argue that such strategies have the potential to move debates about circumcision beyond the parameters of traditional ‘medical law’, with its focus on the doctor–patient nexus and the issue of who can validly consent to medical procedures. We suggest that, as with female genital cutting, male circumcision ought to be debated within a paradigm of social justice which gives adequate weighting to the interests of all affected parties (including women whose health may actually be compromised by the procedure) and which renders visible the socio-economic dimensions of the issue. In line with a social justice approach, we argue that public health initiatives must comply with international ethico-legal standards and be attentive to the emergence of an international human right to health. The shift in analytical frame that we propose has the potential not only to make us re-think our approach to the ethics and legality of male circumcision by challenging its construction as a familial decision but also to impact on the need for a broader conceptualisation of health law as rooted in social justice.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)255-281
JournalLegal Studies
Issue number2
Early online date7 Feb 2012
Publication statusPublished - 9 May 2012