Willy-nilly circumcision sparks legal fears for doctors

Australia National Breaking News

LAWS protect girls from genital surgery but parents wanting to circumcise boys can "go around willy-nilly chopping up bits of their sons," a state children's commissioner says.

Tasmania's commissioner for children, Paul Mason, and the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute have embarked on what they say is the largest review into the legalities of male genital cutting (circumcision) in Australia's history.

Mason said a critical issue for any unnecessary circumcision is whether parental consent is sufficient to protect a surgeon from legal action if the child's genital autonomy is thought to have been infringed. (In the United States many men are now suing doctors and hospitals for surgically amputating their prepuce organ without their consent when they were an infant.)

"The only thing that protects a doctor from an action for assault or a civil prosecution is the valid informed consent of the patient," he said.

"The law is getting pretty hazy about whether a parent can give a valid consent for a child's unnecessary genital cutting procedure."

Mason said about 90% of Australian male babies were circumcised in the 1970s, and today (2009) about 2% of male babies are cut at birth. (In the United States about 60% of male babies born were circumcised at birth in the 1970s, as compared to 49% in 2009. Numbers have decreased dramatically in the majority of the world, leaving the U.S. to stand alone as the most cutting nation in the world.)

The infrequency of circumcision nowadays only heightens the chance of a circumcised boy feeling aggrieved as an adult that his rights were entirely ignored as a child, he said.

High Court rulings and United Nations conventions on the rights of parents and children and legal consent in terms of bodily integrity argue against parental-consent circumcision, he said.

"To me they suggest parents are not entitled to cut or wound their children unless it is for a medically necessary purpose," he said.

Mr Mason said another grey legal area was that many jurisdictions outlaw female genital cutting of any kind, not just the most severe form, because it infringes on girls' human rights and bodily integrity. Does the same thing, then, apply to boys as well?

"We have a situation where girls have legal protection from any surgery on their genitals but parents can go around willy-nilly chopping up bits of their boys."

"That is a discrimination any way you look at it," he said.

University of Tasmania circumcision-law researcher Warwick Marshall is working closely with Mason and the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute review.

Marshall says criminal and civil laws fail to provide adequate certainty for parents and doctors.

"The crux of the uncertainty is whether the consent of the parent of the child being circumcised provides the circumciser with protection from criminal and civil actions which may be brought against them for performing a circumcision," Mr Marshall said.

Public submissions to law reform review close on August 28.


  1. What a fantastic post. I know parents that have 'chosen' to have their son circumcised and yet think that female circumcision is absolutely wrong and are happy to call it what it is- genital mutilation. What is the difference?
    I do often wonder how many adult men have chosen to have their foreskin removed for a non medical reason. Do men with foreskins wish they had had them removed at birth? I doubt it.

  2. My husband is intact and loves his foreskin. When we were pregnant with our first child and trying to decide about circumsision, he went around for three days with his foreskin rolled up (unbeknowest to me). He said it was the most uncomfortable three days of his life, but he wanted to experience what living without that protective skin would be like. I'm so glad he did that. :)

  3. What a nice post. As an intact guy, I can't imagine what it would be like not to be natural(not having a foreskin).
    Having a natural penis(intact foreskin) is 'Nature's Default Setting' - don't tamper with Mother Nature!

  4. Thanks for the post. My daughter decided not to circumcise her boys when they were born. I was so proud of her because she had some very formidable opponents who thought she was crazy.

    Keep up the good work.

  5. My dad - born in 1943 - wasn't circumcised, which was probably unusual, but I don't know. He chose to be circumcised as an adult in his forties for religious reasons, but at least he got to choose.



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