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Male Infant Circumcision Rate on the Decline in Australia

Public hospitals in Australia have banned non-therapeutic circumcision in New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, contributing to the decline in infant circumcision rates.

(NEW YORK, NY) – An August 2011 letter in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health estimates that circumcision rates have dropped to 12.4%. The letter was written by Robert Darby Ph.D., and analyzes data on Medicaid rebates for circumcision from 2000-2010, tracking a declining trend in infant circumcision rates from its peak of 90% in the 1950s.

Circumcision started in English-speaking countries during the 1800s as an expression of Victorian-era morals which demonized sexual pleasure, especially masturbation. Circumcision was expressly performed to prevent masturbation in both boys and girls. Whereas male circumcision became medicalized into the form known today as routine infant circumcision, female circumcision is now considered a form of female genital mutilation, and is banned in many countries.

The foreskin, or prepuce, is the most sensitive part of the penis. Circumcision is the amputation of the foreskin, which causes severe physical and psychological pain, including permanent loss of sexual function and long-term emotional pain response. Male circumcision is considered a form of genital mutilation by many human rights organizations, including the Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, Doctors Opposing Circumcision, Intact America, Jews Against Circumcision, Jews for the Rights of the Child, the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, the National Organization of Restoring Men, and the Whole Network.

No medical organization in the world recommends routine infant circumcision. The latest October 2010 statement from the Royal Australian College of Physicians affirms this position:

“After reviewing the currently available evidence, the [Royal Australian College of Physicians] believes that the frequency of diseases modifiable by circumcision, the level of protection offered by circumcision and the complication rates of circumcision do not warrant routine infant circumcision in Australia and New Zealand.”

Since public hospitals have banned non-therapeutic circumcision in New South Wales (2006), Victoria, and South Australia (2007), parents wishing to circumcise their children must go to private practices, where the procedure is eligible for a Medicaid rebate. This adds another hurdle, further contributing to the decline in infant circumcision rates in a similar fashion seen in the United States. As the practice continues to fall out of favor, more and more parents are having to go to private practices, which may lead to a temporary increase of Medicaid rebates, and hence a phantom rise in rates in isolated provinces.

In recent years, Australia has also seen an increase of immigration from populations where circumcision is highly prevalent, such as African or Middle Eastern peoples. Given the high birth rates in these populations, while the prevalence of circumcision within these communities remains stable, the prevalence of circumcision in specific provinces might rise.

The author's estimates are preliminary, as they are based on Medicaid data alone, and likely underestimates. Nevertheless, these data are useful for analyzing trends, challenging the recent claims of a rise in circumcision rates.

Robert Darby Ph.D. is the writer of “A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain,” a book detailing the historical underpinnings of circumcision. He also runs the “History of Circumcision” website, one of the leading websites on circumcision.