A philosophical question sometimes raised is the following:
“Is circumcision cosmetic?”
The answer is YES and NO.
Definition of Cosmetic
The term “cosmetic” comes from the Greek kosmetikos, which comes from kosmein (“arrange” or “adorn”), which comes from kosmos (“order” or “adornment”). Thus, “cosmetic” would refer to anything that restores or improves the appearance of something. However, “cosmetic” is also very much subjective.
For example, a very decorative bridle has both the non-cosmetic function of controlling the horse and the cosmetic function of improving the horse’s appearance. However, to an animal rights activist who sees any form of animal bondage as ugly, the bridle would not serve a cosmetic purpose. Obviously, it also serves no cosmetic purpose to the horse himself, either. As in this situation, almost anything may be either cosmetic or non-cosmetic depending on the subjective feelings of the audience.
Cosmetic, Medical, or Both?
When something is referred to as “purely cosmetic” or “only cosmetic” or “solely cosmetic,” the implication is that it serves no purpose other than to improve the appearance.
For example, breast augmentation is purely cosmetic. However, breast reduction surgery may be cosmetic or it may be a combination of medical and cosmetic because reducing the size of the breasts reduces strain on the upper back, posing health benefits.
It is also possible for something to have medical purpose without being cosmetic, and this is, by far, the most common reason for a given surgery.
For example, a mastectomy for breast cancer serves medical purpose, but does not improve the woman’s appearance (in any culture) and thus is not cosmetic. If, however, the woman and her physician opted for a combination mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery, it would be both medical and cosmetic since the mastectomy is purely medical and the breast reconstruction is purely cosmetic.
So What About Circumcision?
Even intactivists must admit that there are times when circumcision poses medical benefits. Anti-circumcision physicians around the globe admit that prophylactic (preventive; i.e., before there’s a problem) newborn circumcision poses medical benefits; the disagreement is whether the medical benefits outweigh the cultural, cosmetic drawbacks to circumcision in anti-circumcision cultures where the foreskin is highly valued. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that circumcision does have medical benefits, and so newborn circumcision cannot sincerely be labeled “purely” or “only” or “solely” cosmetic.
Furthermore, circumcision may not be cosmetic at all. If you consider a circumcised penis to be more attractive than an uncut penis, then circumcision would be cosmetic for you. If, however, you consider an uncut penis to be more attractive, then circumcision, like a mastectomy, would not be cosmetic. Thus, whether circumcision is cosmetic depends entirely on the subjective feelings of the people who would be affected by, and must make decisions regarding, that penis—e.g., the parents, the child, and his future partners. If the parents oppose circumcision for cultural reasons (e.g., most Western Europeans), then their choice is solely cosmetic. If the parents or the individual choose(s) circumcision for cultural reasons without regard for the proven health benefits (e.g., certain tribal circumcisions), then their choice is purely cosmetic, but the procedure itself is not purely cosmetic because the procedure still has health benefits.
Parents in developed nations rarely make the decision to circumcise based on a desire for their child’s penis to be “attractive.”* Rather, nearly all parents in developed nations choose circumcision at least in part due to a belief in the medical benefits. Thus, it cannot be argued that the choice is cosmetic in all, or even most, cases. In fact, because the medical benefits are cited even by those making a primarily religious choice, one would be hard-pressed to find a pro-circ parent (i.e., one who currently identifies as pro-circumcision, regardless of the choice they ended up making for financial or other reasons) whose reason was entirely cosmetic.
The Bottom Line
So in short, because it has health benefits, the circumcision procedure cannot be considered “purely” cosmetic. Furthermore, circumcision is almost never a cosmetic choice in the developed world because it is not made based on a belief in the greater attractiveness of the circumcised penis. However, the end-result may be cosmetic if the people involved generally consider it to be more attractive. Thus, circumcision is either: (1) purely medical and non-cosmetic, or (2) a combination of medical and cosmetic. However, circumcision cannot sincerely be labeled “purely cosmetic.”
*However, intactivists’ projection of this (the belief in the circumcised penis’s attractiveness) on pro-circ parents as their primary reason for choosing circumcision strongly implies that intactivists’ choice not to circumcise is largely based on a belief that the uncut penis is attractive—which, frankly, is quite disturbing—as demonstrated by their inability to conceive of people choosing circumcision for any other reason and projection of their own reasons onto others.