Willy-nilly circumcision sparks legal fears for doctors
By Paul Carter, AAP
August 19, 2009 11:54am
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 circumcision in Australia's history.
Mr Mason said a critical issue for any non-therapeutic 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.
"The only thing that protects a doctor from an action for assault or a civil prosecution is the valid 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 non-medical procedure."
Mr Mason said about 90 per cent of Australian male babies were circumcised in the 1970s, dropping to about two per cent these days.
Its infrequency nowadays only heightens the chance of a circumcised boy feeling aggrieved as an adult that his rights were ignored as a child, he said.
But 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 medical purpose," he said.
Mr Mason said another grey legal area was that many jurisdiction outlaw female genital alteration, not just the most severe form, because it infringed on girls' rights.
"But 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 Mr Mason and the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute review.
Mr 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.