Balance Bias & Body Mods for Babies

(Or, why there’s no such thing as an unbiased circumcision resource)

By Katie Ward, YWB of New York Director

People in the United States approaching the topic of infant circumcision for the first time are often looking for unbiased resources — materials that don't seem fanatical and do clearly lay out both the risks and benefits of the procedure. Armed with such resources, expectant parents believe they can make an informed choice and feel confident about it, regardless of whether they decide to leave their child intact or have him circumcised. In addition, people coming in for a second round of evaluation can continue to feel okay with any past decisions made for them, or with decisions they made for someone else.

There's just one issue with the seeking of unbiased sources: they don't exist. Particularly on topics deeply rooted in our cultural psyche and thus controversial, like circumcision.

We all have biases. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, necessarily; it's just part of being human. We experience things, then we make value judgments and categorize those experiences so we’re better able to navigate subsequent situations.

Likewise, resources created by humans contain human biases. Critical evaluation skills, so necessary when we have ever-exploding amounts of information at our fingertips, include being able to identify biases within published materials:

  • Who is the author? (In other words, how might their background and experiences affect their worldview and their opinion on this subject, or their research design and implementation?)

  • What is the author’s purpose in producing this material?

  • Who is their target audience?

In the particular case of circumcision, we need to consider what biases might be present in a study authored by a doctor who has not learned the anatomy and physiology of human foreskin, yet profits by surgically removing it from other people’s bodies. What biases might we find on a web page that lists pros and cons of circumcision when the content is written by a parent who already chose elective surgical alteration for their child, or by an author whose own penis was surgically altered at birth?

Balance bias means giving two sides of a story equal weight when one side doesn't deserve it. Authors of balance-biased materials, in their efforts to evenly paint the risks and benefits of circumcision (and make people feel comfortable), gloss over the harms — problems that happen every time, like loss of specialized erogenous parts of the penis, pain, scarring, keratinization, disruption to normal bonding and feeding patterns — as well as the ethical concerns involved in amputating healthy, functional genital tissue from a child who cannot consent and may very well be upset about it or suffer sexual/psychological sequelae later in life. Authors of balance-biased materials ignore or downplay information that could tip them into territory their readers might perceive as one-sided. This doesn't help anyone in informed decision making. In fact, it makes informed decision making nearly impossible.

In the case of infant circumcision in the U.S., when people say they're looking for unbiased sources that put pros and cons on equal footing, what they're really seeking is balance-biased information.

We're the only nation with medical organizations that recently have had net positive or neutral things to say about child circumcision. Even that’s changing, with the recent (2016) published admission — from a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Task Force on Circumcision — that the “benefits” once said to outweigh risks in their 2012 policy statement are primarily cultural, and that no legitimate method exists to determine a true circumcision risk-benefit ratio. Medical organizations in all the other countries that actually address the issue, including Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Mexico, The Netherlands, Great Britain, and Finland, have position statements discouraging child circumcision.

When they hear of circumcision, people outside the U.S. who don't practice tribal, Muslim, or Jewish genital cutting cannot wrap their heads around the fact that we do this. If we can step away from our common culture momentarily, and look at the following with a critical eye:

"Congratulations, it's a boy! Would you like to pay us to cut off part of his penis before you take him home?"

You really, really don’t have to dig any deeper than that.

To read a few articles that explore the concept of  “balance bias” or “false balance,” click here, here, and here. [Note: These linked articles are off-site. The authors’ views expressed therein do not necessarily represent those of the Your Whole Baby staff.]


Katie Ward lives in New York state with her husband, daughter, and son. She has worked as a journalist and an English teacher, and provides breastfeeding support in her community. When she first began exploring the issue of circumcision, she assumed there had to be a good reason so many people were choosing it for their boys. What she learned (and continues to learn) compelled her to start speaking out in defense of children and their normal, healthy bodies.