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What Can Go Wrong?

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Circumcision is, by and large, one of the safest surgical procedures one can perform on a human. But complications do happen. Estimates of their frequency vary dramatically, from 0.01 percent of cases up to 10 percent or more. A paper by the American Academy of Family Physicians claims that there are two deaths per million circumcisions. Not a lot—but not zero, either.

Trouble mostly falls into two categories: general surgical issues like infections and excessive bleeding, and flat-out errors. The medical literature includes, for example, the story of a wound that became infected with staphylococcus bacteria, which spread, fatally, to the lungs. As for accidents, they are exceedingly infrequent, but they’re unnerving all the same. Most of those involve slightly misplaced cuts: If there’s too much foreskin left, it can adhere to the penis as the scar forms. If there’s too little, a skin graft may be necessary to fill in the gap.

Perhaps the ultimate nightmare scenario is the so-called John/Joan story. In 1966, after an 8-month-old named Bruce Reimer lost his penis to a horribly botched circumcision, doctors persuaded his family to allow gender-reassignment surgery and raise him as a girl. Reimer later re-declared himself male, and eventually took his own life, at 38, in 2004.


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