Ryan McAllister Ph.D. is the creator and director of NotJustSkin.org. He’s also a writer frequently featured on Examiner.com, and currently he’s the intactivist world’s newest YouTube sensation.
At first glance McAllister looks like your average approachable guy next door. In his video presentation Child Circumcision: an Elephant in the Hospital, he is dressed in casual attire. His relaxed posture and his gentle voice have a way of setting you at ease. He addresses his audience the same way he might address a friend at the dinner table, with compassion, humor, and blatant honesty. Only minutes into his lecture you inevitably find yourself hanging on his every word.
“I’m going to talk with you about circumcision,” he explains. “I’m calling it the Elephant in the Hospital because it’s this huge thing that happens, as far as I see, in our culture but we have very little discourse about it. It’s performed between five hundred thousand and a million times each year in the U.S. almost entirely on infants within the first three days of life. It’s completely unnecessary and I believe, based on my research, entirely harmful to children.”
Over a span of thirty-three minutes time, McAllister goes on to examine:
-The most common rationales used to defend infant circumcision
-The history of circumcision in the U.S.
-Comparison of female and male genital cutting practices and attitudes
-Surgical and post-operative complications of circumcision
-Functions on the foreskin
-Ethical issues involving informed consent from medical professionals
-Commercial use of infant foreskin
-The flawed science behind the commonly cited studies used to promote circumcision
-Roadblocks to ending this cultural practice
This powerful video, which was taped as part of a university course on human sexuality, has to date topped 2,600 hits on YouTube and over 550 likes on Vimeo. It’s been lighting up Facebook pages worldwide ever since its release in July 2011. Already this presentation has proven a valuable resource in the education of expectant parents who struggle with the circumcision decision. “I have heard from parents that they've chosen not to circumcise children because of it,” says McAllister.
Why does McAllister feel so passionate about routine infant circumcision in particular? “I believe that adults who interact professionally with children have a critical professional responsibility to bring a very high ethical standard to that work. And even more so with medical professionals, who also have a bioethical imperative to found their work in the needs of the children they serve.”
He goes on to discuss why he finds the practice of routine infant circumcision so troubling. “When I have spoken with medical professionals who perform or have the power to stop this procedure, what I've often heard is a discourse that, instead of being founded in the child's needs, generally lacks any reference to the child's needs. Take, for example, the conversation I mention in my lecture with Dr. Landy, the Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Georgetown University Hospital. When a physician of that esteem tells me that she knows that this elective surgical procedure on a minor doesn't make sense medically, I say that gives her an ethical mandate to stop performing the procedure. However, she said that her department will not "be a beacon of light", that they will not stand out by ceasing to perform circumcision. The reason she gave is essentially economic -- that they want to provide circumcision as a service to parents so that birthing mothers don't choose another hospital in which to give birth. And I am deeply troubled by this reason.”
In addition to all the overwhelmingly positive feedback McAllister has received on his presentation, it’s clear his message has also ruffled some feathers. An attorney representing Georgetown University Hospital issued a letter disputing McAllister’s use of statements made by the Georgetown University Hospital Chair of Obstetrics. McAllister responds: “I have asserted that I am accurately representing my notes from the meeting, and I asked the hospital administration for a meeting to discuss the ethics of their practice of circumcision.”
To date, they have not responded to his request, but according to McAllister that’s not necessarily a bad sign. “My hope is that they will resolve to end the practice because it contradicts the fundamental bioethical principles of non-malfeasance and beneficence -- principles I would hope they aspire to as an institution. As it stands, consciously or unconsciously they're putting the physicians who work at their hospitals under institutional pressure to perform unnecessary surgery on minors -- which, when you look at it, is hard to defend ethically.”
Infant circumcision is only one of many issues McAllister hopes to address. “There are many other elephants in obstetrics -- places where standard practice is directly in conflict with both peer-reviewed research and the well-being of birthing women and newborns,” he points out. “I hope to draw attention to those elephants as well, as the current state of affairs mis-serves women, newborns, their families, and physicians.”