Circumcision - Who Decides?

Circumcision used to be the done thing. Now, only around 10 per cent of Australians circumcise their male infants. But in Tasmania, they are trying to find a way to stop them. A recently released Tasmanian Law Reform Institute issues paper makes no bones about its desire to use the criminal law to prosecute some hapless Jewish, Muslim or Aboriginal parents for circumcising their boys.

Currently, the law won’t do it. As the paper admits, male circumcision does not constitute unlawful wounding, ill treatment or child abuse. This means that when parents make substantially free and informed decisions to circumcise their infant sons, their actions are lawful.

But we need to keep an eye on this one. Changes to Tasmania’s laws could spark similar moves across the country, and the views of the man who initiated the law reform push-Tasmania’s children’s commissioner Paul Mason-seems dangerously unbalanced. “Laws protect girls from [having their clitoris or entire labia excised],” he recently told a newspaper, but parents are free to “go around willy-nilly chopping up bits of their sons”.

Before I go further, I should say that I come from a Jewish background though I did not circumcise either of my sons. It was a bugger of a decision and I prayed for girls in hope of avoiding it. When this failed, I considered the choice carefully, canvassing the medical, ethical, social and cultural/religious issues in turn.

As I see it, the health case for and against circumcision cancel each other out (you can argue the toss, but essentially the evidence can be summed up as “there are no medical reasons for or against circumcision”). Social reasons for circumcising, like it’s “cleaner” or “I want my son to look like Dad,” are trivial and do not stand up well to scrutiny.

This leaves cultural/religious reasons that, in my case, were not compelling. I’m not a believer, nor a member of a community that would cut me off-and reject my sons-if I did not circumcise. I did wonder whether my sons might want to be members of such a community, but figured that by the time they were old enough to make that decision, they could decide for themselves about circumcision.

In general, when parents can defer a meaningful decision about their child to a time when the child can have input, or preferably make it himself, they should. I was able to do this with circumcision.

But for some parents, this would not be possible. What if there is a family history of urinary tract infections-a risk reduced by circumcision in infancy? What if the parents are part of a community that demands circumcision and they believe that their son’s acceptance into this community is key to their current happiness and identity formation? Isn’t the freedom to decide what is in our own and our child’s best interest what a liberal, democratic society is all about?

This does not mean that anything goes. Obviously if circumcision was demonstrably injurious to a child’s physical and mental health-as is female genital cutting-it must be outlawed, no matter what minority groups say. But like Cinderella’s step sister straining at that glass slipper, anti-circumcision advocates can’t make the evidence about male circumcision fit. No matter how you look at it, male circumcision isn’t mutilation or child abuse.

There is no shortage of those who know what is best for our kids. Thankfully, Australian law puts parents in charge. Let’s make sure we keep it that way.

Publication history

Oh boy, that first cut is a divisive one  The Sun-Herald (Sydney)
Oh boy, that first cut is a divisive one  The Brisbane Timeas