Foreskin Bio-Colonialism?

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Soft as a baby's …

In South Africa, the Times Live is reporting a bioethical controversy over using foreskins taken from circumcised babies in making cosmetics. No, really. In fact, some cosmetics companies do derive skin cells known as fibroblasts, a cell in connective tissue that produces collagen and other fibers, from discarded foreskins. Back in 2009, Scientific American reported:

And at least one company is searching for the fountain of youth in baby foreskins—yes, we're talking about that flap of skin sliced away during male circumcision.

About 150 patients in the U.K. have already received injections of Vavelta, a foreskin-derived skin treatment aimed at rejuvenating and smoothing skin withered with age or damaged by scarring from acne, burns and surgical incisions, according to a spokesperson for Intercytex, PLC, the Cambridge, England-based company that makes the product. …

Each vial of Vavelta (enough for treating about four square centimeters of skin, roughly the size of a U.S. postal stamp) consists of about 20 million live fibroblasts—cells that produce a skin-firming protein called collagen, which becomes increasingly scarce with age. Fibroblasts also make elastin, a protein that allows the skin to  snap back to its original shape after being pulled or stretched like a rubber band, as well as hyaluronic acid, which locks moisture in the skin, keeping it supple and plump.

The fibroblasts in Vavelta are isolated from the foreskins taken from baby boys, given several months to grow and multiply in the lab, and then packaged into treatment vials that are shipped to a select group of U.K. physicians. Each vial costs approximately 750 pounds, or $1,000], according to the company spokesperson.

So what is supposedly happening in South Africa? The Times Live reports:

The KwaZulu-Natal department of health said last year that from April 2012 it would, for the first time, offer circumcision as an option to 10% of the mothers of male babies born in public hospitals.

Until now babies have been circumcised for religious or medical reasons.

The decision has raised the ire of the Medical Rights Advocacy Network's bioethics forum which says that a potential 2.3 million foreskins are at stake. …

"Africa may be viewed as the new source of discarded virgin foreskins to sustain a multi-million-dollar industry. Discarded human foreskins are used in the cosmetics industry, in the manufacture of insulin and artificial skin," the Medical Rights Advocacy Network warns in the letter. …

…Mary de Haas, who is co-chairman of the bioethics forum and a research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's school of law, said: "There have been cases in the US where people steal them from the bins because of the commercial value.

"We are worried that pushing for circumcision means that there are vested commercial interests," she said.

De Haas said the increasing global trade in human tissues was a type of "bio-colonialism".

Interestingly, one blog commenter notes that South African law makes it illegal to circumcise female children at all or male children under age 16 without their permission unless it done in conformity with religious practices. 

Back in 1990, the Calfornia Supreme Court ruled in the case of Moore v. Regents of the University of California that a patient did not own tissues and cells removed from his body that were later used to create a lucrative cell line. Various biobanks do offer cells derived from neonatal foreskins for sale

See also my former colleague Radley Balko's 2008 post on this topic here. And my colleague Tim Cavanaugh's reporting on the "intactivist" campaign to ban circumcision in San Francisco. 

NEXT: What Would Libertarians Do?: A Conversation with Matt Welch & Nick Gillespie at SF's Commonwealth Club

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  1. one blog commenter notes that South African law makes it illegal to circumcise female children at all or male children under age 16 without their permission unless it done in conformity with religious practices.

    My nomination for Biggest Loophole in the Known Universe.

    1. “Done in conformity with religious practices.”

      Yeah … that’s the ticket!

  2. Good morning reason!

  3. Oh crap, here goes another 1000 comment circumcision post.

    I personally fail to see how a libertarian could possibly support involuntary circumcision. Apparently it’s not an act of aggression to cut the tip of a child’s penis for no reason. (Excuse me, for religious or commercial reasons.)

    1. Your parents did lots of things to you that violate the non-agression principle. Unless you want to make it so parents can only make approved decisions for their children, it’s just something you’ll have to deal with.

      1. Yeah, I don’t care about stuff like spanking or time-outs, or whatever. parents have a responsibility to teach their kids how to behave and survive in society. Circumcision doesn’t teach you a lesson however. Forcing a kid to eat his vegetables isn’t anywhere near cutting off the foreskin.

        1. While I agree with you, people will claim that it’s like getting your tonsils removed or some other medical procedure, because some people believe that it’s more “hygienic”. Or that it’s God’s Law.

          Retarded religious practices are retarded.

          1. Tonsils are no longer cut off without pressing medical need. There is no other normal, healthy, irreplacable, functional body part that is cut off at parental whim. (The female prepuce has special legal protection – why the double standard?)

        2. Circumcision can be argued is for health and cultural reasons, this is not child sacrifice or cannibalism. To ban circumcision stinks more like the old communists in China and USSR who wanted to eliminate all “primitive” customs to create a new modern man.

          1. It doesn’t have to be banned. Any adult who wants to mutilate their body should be able to. We shouldn’t let babies be mutilated.

            1. Circumcision is as much mutilation as cutting the umbilical cord is. When they cut off babies arms, then worry about it.

              1. So, female circumcision is OK then?

                1. I didn’t know females had foreskins…

                  1. H,

                    Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. Google it. Then come back with your witticisms.

              2. I have considered your comment and wish to give a reasoned reply. However, what seems to come bubbling to the top of my list of comments is to wonder what education system actually let you believe that.

              3. When the foreskin dries up and falls off by itself within a few days of birth, then circumcision will be as little mutilation as cutting the umbilical cord is. The umbilical cord has no nerves and no known post-natal function.

          2. “Circumcision can be argued is for health and cultural reasons”

            just not successfully. Male circumcision has been practiced in the US since the 1870s, and the best the AMA and AAP can come up with is “potential benefits”. Bull.
            http://www.publichealthinafric……e4/html_9

            http://www.thewholenetwork.org…..t-hiv.html

          3. Of course the alleged “health benefits” can be argued — any damned-fool thing can be argued and this is one of them — but it cannot be argued successfully because there ARE NO HEALTH OR MEDICAL BENEFITS OF AMPUTATING THE PENILE FORESKIN! It’s complete quackery and it needs to stop, regardless of who is doing, why they are doing it, and where they are doing it.

      2. Who should decide whether a baby gets circumsized? The parents, or the State?

        1. Baby girls and boys?

          1. Does “gaga googoo” mean yes or no?

            1. H, it seems that you spend most of your time on H&R with Episiarch’s dick down your throat, rhetorically speaking. So, in your case, “gaga googoo” seems to mean “more please”.

        2. How about the penis’ owner, when he is old enough to make such a decision? In most of the world that’s what happens, and if he gives the matter any thought at all, he almost invariably decides to keep it.

    2. Re: Dekedin,

      I personally fail to see how a libertarian could possibly support involuntary circumcision.

      Because voluntary circumcision is more painful….

      1. How is that relevant? I’m guessing involuntarily cutting someone’s arm off with anesthesia would be far less painful than voluntarily cutting your arm off without anesthesia, that doesn’t maker the former better.

        1. It doesn’t make it funny either

        2. Re: Dekedin,

          I guess you did not see that “Married… With Children” episode.

          The joke I was trying to make is based on the fact that circumcision in a newborn baby boy is hardly the traumatic experience people try to argue. If you’re old enough to make your own decisions regarding your own circumcision, then you’re old enough to experience just how painful it can be afterwards.

          Hardy har-har.

          1. “circumcision in a newborn baby boy is hardly the traumatic experience people try to argue.” Watch a few, right through, with the sound turned up – there are plenty on YouTube – and see if you can still say that.

            “If you’re old enough to make your own decisions regarding your own circumcision, then you’re old enough to experience just how painful it can be afterwards.” But you’ll almost certainly decide not to do it, so you won’t experience any pain at all.

            Admit it, the real reason they do it to babies is that babies can’t fight back.

      2. “voluntary circumcision is more painful…”

        How could you possibly know this?

    3. “Oh crap, here goes another 1000 comment circumcision post.”

      You started it, douchebag. I thought this was going to be about the less pointless and more interesting subject of the market in human tissue and organs.

  4. The decision has raised the ire of the Medical Rights Advocacy Network’s bioethics forum which says that a potential 2.3 million foreskins are at stake.

    “We must do what it takes to save the life of 2.3 million foreskins!”

    1. I rarely do this, OM, but in this case it seems appropriate. There’s a use for the foreskins!

      1. “Hank was happy to respond: “I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped to think about what is the softest part of an animal’s skin,” he said, before stepping away through the crowd of chuckling journalists.”

        I want my ass some labia underpants!

  5. Various biobanks do offer cells derived from neonatal foreskins for sale.

    And to think I paid $1000.00 for my son’s – I could have recouped all of it from the open neonatal foreskin market!!

    1. Or you could have let your son make the decision for himself later in life and then put that money to a use that he preferred. It is his penis, after all.

      1. Re: Wayne,

        Or you could have let your son make the decision for himself later in life and then put that money to a use that he preferred.

        Or, even better, I could tell you to mind your own business and let me handle my children in the way I best know.

        1. OM, there are all kinds of legitimate limits placed on parents regarding how they handle their children. I fail to see how circumcision is anything but a centuries old superstitious practice.

          If infant circumcision for boys were outlawed, I would bet that the rate of voluntary circumcision would fall to 1 or 2%. Circumcision is almost never medically warranted. I think it ought to be left up to adult men (and women) to decide for themselves whether to circumcise themselves.

          1. Yep… much like we leave it up to them whether they should be aborted or not, eh?

            1. GRBW, these are different issues entirely. I am ambivalent on the abortion issue, but there is a mountainous difference between a zygote and an infant boy.

              1. Wayne, the difference between a fetus and an infant boy is 1 hour.

                1. Location, location, location.

                2. Yes, a fetus. I said zygote, though

                  1. Wayne, do you favor a ban on abortions two months after conception?

                    The Miriam-Webster online dictionary definition of a fetus:

                    an unborn or unhatched vertebrate especially after attaining the basic structural plan of its kind; specifically : a developing human from usually two months after conception to birth

                    1. JT, abortion is not the topic on this thread.

                      I said earlier that I am ambivalent on abortion. I will just leave it at that.

          2. If it is simply a superstitious practice, why ban it? Maybe we should ban parents from teaching their kids to believe in certain things. After all, people should be able to choose their beliefs.

            1. For the exact same reason that female circumcision is banned. It’s a terrible, needless amputation performed on an infant.

            2. Adults are free to decide what religion they care to practice, if any. They can also decide how they want their genitals configured.
              Indoctrination is reversible. Amputation is not.

        2. “I could tell you to mind your own business and let me handle my children in the way I best know.”

          The voice of the child abuser through the ages.

  6. so many dick jokes, so little time.

    1. Frylock: Apprently, Carl, when you bought that medium drink you entered a binding contract that enables them to rip off your dick.

      Carl: Oh no…

      Frylock: Yeah. And there’s really nothing I can do about it.

  7. also: am I the only one who read Vavelta as Velveeta?

    1. No. It is a poor trade name, but appropriate for such a practice. Maybe they should have named it “Fore Play”.

      1. Fore Play is certainly much better than the image of dick cheese that Vavelta brings to mind.

        1. You’re doing it wrong.

        2. nice try.
          I’m uncut, and haven’t seen any since I was four. I could say things about the beauty of a scar, but my maturity level is past 5 years old.
          push your hate someplace else, nipplemancer.

    2. It seems suspiciously close. One can only shudder at the nefarious plans of Kraft and Intercytex…

  8. This gives new meaning to the term “skin cream”.

    1. Now I can cite this article when I tell the wife that its good for the skin!

      Now if they could only find some foreskin derived herbal supplement…

      1. Didn’t Jorge Posada an Moises Alou soften their hands by pissing on them? Thus the reason neither wore batting gloves.

        If it works for the hands, it’ll work for the face.

        1. There’s a species of lemur that has sticky urine and climbs trees better when it pees on its own hands & feets.

          Thank you, Discovery channel.

        2. Hell yes!

  9. Only four square centimeters eh? How much more does it cover if you flip on a porno?

    1. ^nice

      I now have proof to give to my wife that when I have women rub their labias – via the more humanely, intact method – against my face, it keeps me young looking.

  10. “Rub it, and it turns into a suitcase.”

  11. Ron, I was really hoping for a foreskin related disclosure.

  12. Why is no one asking the important questions? Can we harvest the foreskin from aborted fetuses and other dead babies?

  13. I love the product! I have it injected into my foreskin to keep it super soft!

  14. Butters, you do not cut off skin around a guy’s dick! That is just not okay!!!

    But for realz, to my circumcised brothers, I am sorry that your parents were jackasses.

  15. It is ritual child partial genital amputation. What stinks more, eliminating all “primitive” customs, or stealing 35% to 50% of the skin of a man’s manhood? And having the doctor who advised it selling the foreskin, without the parents’ knowledge. No ethical violation there, nor conflict of interest, eh?
    It leaves the kid with a dry, dull stick, comparatively.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v…..=autoshare

  16. Why the fuck does every thread mentioning foreskin have to turn into a debate about the morality of circumcision where nobody says anything new and all of the same tired old shit is rehashed?

    1. What else is there to debate?

      Circumcision of male infants, and female infants, has been practiced for thousands of years. It is an ancient practice of ritual mutilation of genitals, passed from superstitious goat-herders to then be codified into religion.

      Circumcision has been rationalized for all kinds of “reasons”. The last big rationalization (before the “it prevents teh AIDS”) was that it inhibited masturbation amongst boys.

      Feel free to inject something new into the conversation, assuming you have something new.

    2. In this case, because the foreskins are being obtained for cosmetics from non-therapeutic (and hence unethical) circumcisions.

  17. While totally unethical (first, do no harm) (the baby is the patient, not the parents), selling the baby’s foreskin is perfectly legal in the United States. It happens every day. The doctor doesn’t even have to reveal the conflict of interest to the parents. He or she just gets to collect the $300 from the cosmetics or biogen company.

    Routine infant circumcision has always been, and will always be, a false bill of goods. It offers zero protection.
    Witness the fact that hundreds of thousands of circumcised Americans have died of AIDS. Or the numerous studies which show that circumcised and uncircumcised men get the same diseases, at the same rates. I’m not talking about the 3 South African studies, I’m talking about real science.

    1. I agree with you. The African studies were deeply flawed. I don’t believe a single conclusion reached by them.

    2. Even if you take the South African studies at face value they’re still a remarkably weak argument in favor of circumcision, brought up only by the most idiotic of its defenders.

      “Look! Your chances of contracting a fatal disease from unsafe sex (which you shouldn’t be having anyway) are lowered from 5% to 2.5% by this procedure, so let’s have it performed so we can all raw-dog to our hearts’ content!”

  18. “I’m not talking about the 3 South African studies, I’m talking about real science.”

    RACIST!!!

    1. Two of the three were led by Americans, the other by a Frenchman.

  19. Great article. Thank you for writing it and bringing this aspect of the issue to our attention.

  20. Parents, not the state, should be able to decide about circumcising their sons.

    1. Same reasoning applies for infant girls. Those who practice female circumcision use the same arguments, “it is our religious belief, it is our custom, it is up to the parent to make these decisions”. Yet female circumcision was relabeled “female genital mutilation” and banned, and the world did not end.

  21. If I had a son, I would circumcise him. Historically, there’s been a very strong correlation between governments banning circumcision and governments banning Judaism. If circumcision becomes illegal, then it’s time to emigrate.

    1. I would like to see some figures, or at least lists of countries, for that. The Nazis never banned circumcision, because they found it useful to identify Jews.

  22. Other cosmetic companies get collagen from animal skins that are a byproduct of the meat industry. There’s no reason to derive it from the cells of infant foreskins unless your customers like the idea of their make up coming from chopped up baby parts.

  23. Circumcision is an unnecessary and can cause tremendous problems in later life. The older a men gets the less sensitivities head gets. I was circumcised after birth due to medical reasons. The worse about my circumcision is that the at the age of 56 I developed lymph problems as the lymph is damaged during circumcision. (Chronic idiopathic penile edema (CIPE)) and had 3 operations last year. Two where all the skin was removed and a third when the plastic Surgeon replaced the skin with skin from my leg. I was in hospital for 25 days and for six months I went through hell and yet I will have to have another operation again. Veins and Lymph are just cut away. Apparently men can have problems at the age of 34 and from 54. Unfortunately men never talked about problems and there is no statistics about chronic idiopathic penile edema (CIPE). (for info on edema see: The Open Dermatology Journal, 2011, 5, 1-5 (Complications such as delayed healing after circumcision or other local surgical procedures are
    encountered. Long-term complications of CIPE include
    squamous cell carcinoma [9,20].)

  24. If maggot shit can be used for cosmetics, why not foreskins?

    Do you think ambergris is a clean product?

  25. “flap of skin”
    MC cuts off as much as it leaves, so you have thus insulted all men on their penis size because according to you just a flap of skin would cover their erect organ. For others who WANT to know, check out Gary’s “Lost List” of what can / cannot be restored.

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