CIRCUMCISION OF MALE INFANTS RESEARCH PAPER,
Queensland Law Reform Commission, Brisbane.
December 1993.


[Previous Section] [Back to Contents] [Next Section]

2.    THE HISTORY OF MALE CIRCUMCISION

      (a)   Origins

      The practice of circumcising3 male infants dates at least back
      to 2340-2180 BC.  Egyptian representations of Pharaonic times
      show the circumcised penis.  It is apparent that male
      circumcision had been practised in Egypt for many thousands of
      years.4  Because of the uniqueness of Egyptian records, it is
      not possible to make any conclusive statements about either the
      origins of male circumcision or about its spread.

      In Genesis 17 of the Old Testament God is said to have directed
      Abraham to circumcise himself, his son and all other males in
      his house.5

         10    This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between
         me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among
         you shall be circumcised.

         11    And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin;
         and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and
         you.

         12    And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised
         among you, every man child in your generations, he that
         is born in the house, or bought with money of any
         stranger, which is not of thy seed.

         13    He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought
         with money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant
         shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

         14    And the uncircumcised man whose flesh of his
         foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off
         from his people; he hath broken my covenant ....

         23    And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that
         were born in his house, and all that were bought with
         money, every male among the men of Abraham's house;
         and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the
         selfsame day, as God has said unto him.

         24    And Abraham was ninety years old, when he was
         circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.

         25    And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when
         he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.

         26    In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised and
         Ishmael his son.

         27    And all the men in his house, born in the house,
         and bought money with the stranger, were circumcised
         with him.

      In the Islamic religion, Abraham was the first Prophet to be
      circumcised.6  Dr S N Khan states:7


         Circumcision, encouraged in Islam and widely practised
         by Muslims, is a tradition of the Prophet and an
         important ritual.  It is recommended that it be
         performed on the newborn but in some communities, it
         is done just before puberty.

      In a submission to the  Commission, it was stated:8

         We wish to emphasize that Muslim parents or guardians
         throughout the world enjoy the right to consent to
         circumcision of young boys on the ground of authentic
         religious reasons, although some doctors may support
         it on purely medical grounds.

      Rabbi John Levi has summarised the mainstream Jewish attitude to
      circumcision as:9

         Jewish male children must be circumcised on the eight
         day of life unless there is a danger to the child's
         life because of the operation, in which case it may be
         delayed. (The traditional eight days are counted by
         including the first day of life: a child born on a
         Sunday is circumcised the following Sunday).
         Circumcision in Jewish life is a religious ceremony
         and should, if possible, be performed by a Jewish
         doctor who has been trained to do it and will read
         the appropriate religious service and name the child.


      Both Jews and Muslims circumcise in accordance with Abraham's
      covenant with God.  Most of the major religions in Australia do
      not promote routine circumcision or consider it to be a mandated
      religious practice.10

      Non-religious theories of the origin of male circumcision
      suggest that it was practised as a punitive measure, as a
      puberty or premarital rite, as an absolution against the feared
      toxic influences of vaginal (hymeneal) blood, for other health
      reasons, as a mark of slavery or for cosmetic reasons.

      Some claim it as diminution of human sacrifice.11

      Hosken observes:12

         Some anthropologists also speculate how or if the
         tradition of male circumcision, the removal of the
         prepuce, is related to cutting off the entire penis
         which was offered as a sacrifice to the gods.  This
         is said to have been practiced in ancient Egypt. The
         custom to use the male genitals as war trophies was
         also widespead as reported in Middle Eastern history,
         and has also been recorded by the ancient Egyptians.

         The Gallas, Somalis and the Abyssinians, it is
         related, cut the complete genital apparatus off their
         enemies.  Some warriers offered the genitalia of
         their enemies as trophies to the girls they chose to
         marry. To use male genitalia as war trophies continues
         to be present in some parts of Africa; for instance it
         was reported in the two recent upheavals in Zaire
         (Biafra and Shaba Province).  It was also reported in
         Vietnam.

         Circumcision of both boys and girls came into fashion
         long before Islam, and was practiced in many different
         areas of Africa. The practice was unknown to the
         Romans until they conquered Egypt and the Middle East.
         The Copts in Egypt, and the Abyssinians (Ethiopians)
         have practiced circumcision of boys and girls (at a
         much younger age than the typical puberty rites of
         Sub-saharan Africans) from prehistoric times.

         It is stated that both the Jews and the Arabs
         learned circumcision in Egypt, rather than vice
         versa. The rule in the Middle East, as will as in
         Sub-saharan Africa, is that a boy cannot get married
         unless he is circumcised. The same rule applied to
         excision [in females], which has acquired much the
         same rhetoric and similar, though less important,
         rituals as the male operation. All rituals connected
         with men are more important in the Middle East, as
         well as most of Africa because of the dominant
         position of men. The purpose and result of excision
         and infibulation [in females] are quite the opposite
         of the male operation, though they are often
         correlated, a fact which was and is not at all known
         to the practitioners.

         ... excision [in females] is practiced to affirm the
         sex of the individual, because it is believed that
         the clitoris represents a male element in a female,
         and the prepuce of the penis represent femininity in a
         boy.  Hence, the girls are excised and the boys
         circumcised in order to establish their sex in
         society.

      (b)   Western Cultures

      In a number of Western countries such as the United States of
      America and Australia, the practice of male circumcision for
      non-religious reasons became prevalent by the beginning of the
      twentieth century.

         Within the miasma of myth and ignorance [when the
         aetiology of most diseases was unknown], a theory
         emerged that masturbation caused many and varied
         ills. It seemed logical to some physicians to perform
         genital surgery on both sexes to stop
         masturbation.13

      In 1891 P C Remondino, MD, advocated circumcision to prevent or
      cure alcholism, epilepsy, asthma, hernia, gout, rheumatism,
      curvature of the spine, and headaches.14

      During the First World War circumcision was promoted for hygiene
      reasons and for prevention of venereal diseases.15

      In the 1930's it was considered that circumcision prevents
      cancer of the penis.16  In the 1950's  it was claimed that
      cervical cancer occurs in women because their partners are not
      circumcised.17

      In World War II male troops were encouraged to be circumcised,
      given limited personal hygiene facilities in overseas combat
      zones.  Circumcision is not now encouraged unless the person
      presents with a medical condition indicating a need for
      circumcision.18

      By the 1960's the majority of Australian and virtually all
      United States and Canadian male infants were circumcised.19

      (c)   Aboriginal and Islander Culture

      Circumcision of boys and adolescents is also a part of
      Australian Aboriginal culture, at least in certain area.  John
      Cawte notes:20

         Circumcision in adolescence will probably remain a
         feature of Aboriginal cultural life in the Centre.
         It provides an occasion for social integration,
         personal identity, and a holiday.  But changes must
         be expected with growing westernisation.  For example,
         requests are being heard for the operative procedure
         to be carried out with proper surgical and aseptic
         precautions ... with retention of the elaborate tribal
         ritual before, during and after the surgical ceremony.

         Many educated Aborigines who have grown up without
         undergoing the circumcision ceremony, because of
         Mission affliations at the time, express an
         uncomfortable sense of incomplete tribal
         responsibility and status. They are asking for the
         operation, even at mature ages. The European doctor who
         offers his service finds himself questioning whether
         his own culture does not circumcise at the wrong time,
         when the little boys are too young to appreciate the
         psychological and social implications of the kind that
         Aborigines understand very well. Certainly he will have
         no wish to interfere with the Aboriginal view of the
         procedure's proper timing.21

      Money et al have described the circumcision practices of the
      Yoingu Aboriginal community at Arnhemland.  At the age of 8 or 9
      boys go through an initiation ceremony of circumcision or
      `dhapi':22

         The ceremonial initiates among the elders carry the
         boy off, safe from the view of girls and women,
         encircling him in close formation.  One of them lies
         on his back on the ground, the boy lying face upward
         upon him and pinioned in a locked embrace.  Another
         man holds down the boy's legs. A third does the actual
         cutting. In ancient times a stone knife was used.
         Today the instrument is a razor blade.  The cutting is
         more likely to be a series of dissection movements
         rather than swift incision.  The boy may cry out with
         the pain.  Immediately the foreskin is removed, the
         men in charge carry the boy into the bush nearby where
         he is passed through the smoke of a fire for spiritual
         cleansing.  The bleeding of his penis is stopped by
         cauterizing with a piece of hot charcoal and the
         application of hot, wet leaves.  He returns to his
         home camp-fire and there rests and recuperates about
         a week.

         The meaning of the ceremony is, like the origin of
         circumcision itself, lost in the unrecorded annals of
         prehistory.  My own theoretical guess is that is
         represents a substitute for, and attenuation of, a
         still earlier practice of human sacrifice.  One may
         see a similarity with the way in which the symbol of
         the Crucifixion became a substitute for, and
         attenuation of the animal sacrifice of Old Testament
         times.

      Similarly, Meggit refers to the circumcision for boys between 11
      and 13 in the Walbiri people of Central Australia.

         The rite of circumcision and its attendant ceremonies
         firmly and unequivocably establish a youth's status
         in Walbiri society.  Should he fail to pass through
         these rites, he may not enter into his father's lodge,
         he may not participate in religious ceremonies, he
         cannot acquire a marriage line, he cannot
         legitimately obtain a wife; in short, he cannot
         become a social person.

      Meggit also notes that:24

         The Walbiri explicitly equate circumcision with ritual
         killing.

      Subincision is performed on youths of the Walbiri people at 17
      years of age.  Subincision has been described by Meggit as
      follows:25

         To the accompaniment of loud chanting by the company,
         the man deftly slices open the youth's penis from the
         meatus to a point about an inch along the urethra.
         An elder brother also hold the penis, to ensure that
         the "inside bone" is not cut, while others brothers
         stand ready to kill the incisor if he bungles his task.
         The operator withdraws immediately he makes the cut ...
         it is not until he is betrothed, a couple of years
         after he has been sub-incised that he is regarded as
         an adult.

      (d)      Current practice


      Over the last two decades the popularity of neonatal
      circumcision has decreased.26  By 1980 only 40 percent of
      Australian male babies were circumcised.27

      It is unclear what the current rate of circumcision is in
      Australia, although estimates range from 25 per cent28 to 35
      per cent.29
[CIRP Note: The Australian College of Paediatrics, Parkville, Vic., reported that in 1995-96 the incidence of male circumcision from birth to age 6 mos. ranged from a low of 5.4 per cent in Victoria to a high of 17.2 per cent in Queensland with the all Australia incidence being 10.6 per cent.]
      The number of circumcisions qualifying for Medicare
      reimbursement in Australia has remained fairly static over the
      last 5 years30 and may have actually decreased slightly on a
      per capita basis, given the increase in the number of live
      births over that time.

      The highest proportion of circumcisions Australia-wide and in
      Queensland were performed on infants less than 6 months of age,
      which suggests that they were performed for religious, cultural
      or perceived prophylactic purposes.31  Relatively few
      circumcisions are performed on public patients in public
      hospitals in Queensland.  Some public hospitals have adopted a
      policy of not performing routine neonatal circumcisions.  When
      circumcisions are performed in public hospitals, they tend to be
      performed on older children.32  This may indicate a reluctance
      to circumcise newborns.  It could also indicate a medical need
      to circumcise older infants.

      In the United States, circumcision rates remain high at between
      50 - 75 per cent.33 It has been estimated that between
      75 per cent34 and 85 per cent of the world's male population
      are not and will not be circumcised.35  In most European
      countries circumcision is not  a routine approved procedure.
[CIRP Note: The US government statistics show an overall rate of 60.2 per cent for 1996. The rate varied from a high of 80 per cent in the Mid West to 35 per cent in the West.??]
Notes:

   3  Circumcision, also referred to as prepucectomy, is the removal
      of the prepuce (foreskin) from the penis. See pp 11,12 below.

   4  Hosken F. The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of
      Females (1982), at 51.  There is speculation that female
      circumcision started in the same area as a parallel to the male
      operation or at puberty, although it is probably true to say
      that male circumcision is performed in many more societies than
      female circumcision, both in the past as well as the present.
      See Queensland Law Reform Commission Female Genital Mutilation
      Research Paper December 1993.

   5  The Holy Bible, The British and Foreign Bible Society.
      Historians have dated the covenant back to 1713 BC. But note The
      Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians. The Holy Bible,
      The British and Foreign Bible Society, Chapter 6 Verses 12-16:

         12 As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh,
            they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they
            should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.

         13 For neither they themselves who are circumcised
            keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised
            that they may glory in your flesh.

         14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the
            cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world
            is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.

         15 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth
            anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.

         16 And as many as walk according to this rule, peace
            be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.

   6  Pridie ED, Lorenzen AE, Cruckshank Dr A, Hovell JS, and
      MacDonald DR. Female Circumcision in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan
      (1945) from the Foreword by Skeikh Ahmed-El-Taher (The Mufti of
      the Sudan) referred to in Hosken F, The Hosken Report: Genital
      and Sexual Mutilation of Females (1982), at 5.

   7  Khan SN. The Islamic Viewpoint. Australian Family Physician, Vol
      15 No 2, February 1986, 179.

   8  Islamic Council of Queensland.

   9  Levi JS. Religion and Medicine: Jewish Medical Ethics.
      Australian Family Physician, Vol. 15 No. 3, January 1986, 17 at
      18.

  10  For example:   Read H. The Salvation Army Viewpoint. Australian
                     Family Physician Vol 15 No 3 May 1986 at 574.

                        Circumcision is neither required nor
                        prohibited by the Salvation Army; it is a
                        matter for parents to decide.  Circumcision is
                        not under taken as a religious ritual ....

                     Manning KM. A Catholic Viewpoint. Australian
                     Family Physician Vol 15 No 4 April 1986 493 at
                     496:

                        No great importance is attached to this in
                        Christian tradition.  Reasons such as hygiene
                        justify its use.

                     McClean D. Jehovah's Witnesses. Australian Family
                     Physician Vol 15 No 6 June 1986 772.

                        While circumcision was mandatory for Israelite
                        males, it is not seen as applying to
                        Christians but couples may have their child
                        circumcised if they wish.

                     Baliozian A. Armenian Church. Australian Family
                     Physician Vol 15 No 8 August 1986 1024:

                        Generally [circumcision] is opposed by the
                        Church but accepted if a medical practitioner
                        decides it is for the patient's benefit.

                     Ewers GA. Churches of Christ. Australian Family
                     Physician Vol 15 No 8 August 1986 1024:

                        Few members, if any, would have objection to
                        ... circumcision although there is no stated
                        policy on these things.

                     Archbishop Styllanos. Greek Orthodox. Australian
                     Family Physician Vol 15 No 8 August 1986
                     1024-1025:

                        Circumcision and the like constitute
                        individual issues in Christian ethics and
                        cannot be answered a priori, that is to say,
                        without bearing in mind the person they relate
                        to.

  11  See Milos MF and Macris D. Circumcision: A Medical or a Human
      Rights Issue? Journal of Nurse-Midwifery Vol 37 No 2 1992 at
      875.

  12  Hosken F. The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of
      Females 1982 at 55.

  13  Wallerstein E. Circumcision: the uniquely American Medical
      Enigma. Urological Clinics of North America 12(1) [1985]: 123-32.
      referred to in Milos MF and Macros D Circumcision: A Medical or
      Human Rights Issue? Vol 37 No 2 1992 Journal of Nurse-Midwifery
      at 875.

  14  Romandino (sic; should be Remondino) History of Circumcision
      from the earliest times to the present. Philadelphia: Davis,
      1891 [Republished New York AMS Press 1974] 161-82.

  15  Surgeon-General's Office Canberra.  Also, Milos MF. Body
      Ownership Rights of Children: the Circumcision Question (1992)
      American Atheist at 50.

  16  Wolbarst AL. Circumcision and Penile Cancer. Lancet Vol 1
      (1932), at 150-153.

  17  Wynder EL et al. A study of environmental factors in carcinoma of
      the cervix. American Journal of Obstet. Gynecol. Vol 68(84) 1954
      1016-1046; referred to in Milos MF, Macris D  Circumcision: A
      Medical or a Human Rights Issue?

  18  Surgeon General's Office, Canberra.

  19  Leitch IOW. Circumcision - A Continuing Enigma Australian
      Paediatric Journal Vol 6 (1970), 59 at 63.

  20  Cawte J. Social Medicine in Central Australia: The Opportunities
      of Pitjantjara Aborigines. The Medical Journal of Australia
      (February 3, 1977), 221 at 227.

  21  Cawte also refers to the practice of subincision (described at
      p. 10 below). id at 227:
            Subincision is another matter; this is going a little far
            for European tastes; a subincised man makes a mess by
            spraying rather than squirting in toilets and urinals.

  22  Money J, Cawte JE, Bianchi GN, Nurcombe B Sex Training and
      Traditions in Arnhemland British Journal Med. Psychol. Vol 43
      1970 383. See also Gray D A Revival of the Law: The Probable
      Spread of Initiation Circumcision in Religion in Aboriginal
      Australia: An Anthology 1986 at 419.

  23  Meggitt MJ. Initiation among the Waibiri in Religion in
      Aboriginal Australia: An Anthology (1986), at 241.

  24  Id at 253. At 261 Meggit describes the operation:
            A brother seizes the novice and places him face upward on
            the table, with his feet toward the fire. Another brother
            straddles him and presses his pubes against the lad's face
            to silence his cries, while a third grips his legs.  A
            brother holds the shaft of the boy's penis, in order to
            protect `the inside bone' from injury; one of the
            circumcisers stretches the foreskin several inches, and
            another cuts it off with two or three quick slices.  The
            rest of the brothers watch closely for it is there duty to
            kill the operator at once if he mutilates the boy. (it is
            small wonder that some men are literally grey with anxiety
            when they perform the their first operation.)

  25  Id at 265-256. Subincision has been abandoned in a number of
      communities.  See Gray DA. Revival of the Law: The Probable
      Spread of Initiation Circumcision in Religion in Aboriginal
      Australia: An Anthology (1986), at 432-433. See also: Pounder
      DJ. Ritual Mutilation: Subincision of the Penis in Australian
      Aborigines The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and
      Pathology, Vol 4 No 3 (Sept 1983), 227.

  26  Although this is not evident from the small but seemingly
      increasing numbers of circumcisions performed in public
      hospitals on public patients in Queensland. See Appendix 2.

  27  Wirth JL. Current Circumcision Practices in Australia Medical
      Journal of Australia, Vol 1 (1982), at 177-179.

  28  Little K. Circumcision: Pros and Cons Modern Medicine,
      (September 1992), 37. Williams G. Newborn Circumcision - An
      Enigma of Health Paper delivered to the Second International
      Homebirth Conference 4-7 October 1992, Sydney.

  29  Little K. Circumcision: Pros and Cons Modern Medicine
      (September 1992), 37 suggests a total rate for Australia of
      approximately 30 to 35%:
            Overall there has been a slow but consistent decrease in
            the number of children being circumcised, and this trend
            is expected to continue into the future.

  30  See Appendix 1.

  31  See Appendix 1. The number of circumcisions performed on infants
      under 6 months of age in 1988/89 for which Medicare provided a
      reimbursement was 14,674.  In 1992/93 the number 14,604.  In
      1988 there were 126,223 live male births in Australia.  In 1992
      there were 135,601 live male births.  The number of infant
      circumcisions per live male births has decreased in that period
      from 11.6% to 10.76%.

  32  The most recent available figures, provided by the Health
      Information Services Unit of Queensland Health on 26 November
      1993 are set out in Appendix 2.  In 1988 15 babies under 6
      months of age were circumcised as public patients in public
      hospitals.   This rose to 77 (preliminary figures in 1991.  For
      infants 6 months to 10 years of age, 250 were circumcised in
      1988 and 304 in 1991.

  33  Schoen E. The Status of Circumcision in Newborns The New
      England Journal of Medicine 1990:1308, Williams G. Newborn
      Circumcision - An Enigma of Health Paper delivered to the
      Second International Homebirth Conference, 4-7 October 1992,
      Sydney.

  34  Williams G. Newborn Circumcision - An Enigma of Health Paper
      delivered to The Second International Homebirth Conference, 4-7
      October 1992, Sydney.

  35  Milos MF and Macris D. Circumcision: A Medical or Human Rights
      Issue? Journal of Nurse-Midwifery, Vol 37 No 2 (1991): 875 at
      905.  See also Hirst G. Controversies Surrounding Circumcision
      Patient Management (September 1984 at 12 who suggests that a
      maximum of only 3 per cent of the world's population were
      subjected to routine circumcision at its peak incidence.

[Previous Section] [Back to Contents] [Next Section]

Cite as:
(File revised 27 December 2001)

http://www.cirp.org/library/legal/QLRC/