Non-therapeutic male infant circumcision: Rights to bodily integrity and autonomy



This project was part of the Australian Human Rights Institute’s 2023 seed funding round, receiving $6, 845. 


Male circumcision – the removal of the penile prepuce (foreskin) – remains a controversial issue that invokes ethical, religious and medical debates. Parents in Australia can choose for their child to be circumcised (primarily for cultural or religious reasons) but the Royal Australasian College for Physicians (RACP) recommends against the procedure unless it is medically necessary (RACP, 2023). Significantly, the guidelines also highlight that non-therapeutic male infant circumcision involves ethical and human rights issues, particularly because the child is unable to consent to the procedure. (RACP, 2023). 

Despite this recommendation against circumcision in Australia, a small minority of clinicians and health researchers continue to advocate for male infant circumcision for health and hygiene reasons (e.g., Morris et al., 2022). They argue that the potential risks from the procedure are outweighed by the potential benefits it could offer young boys over their lifetime: reduced risk of UTIs, penile cancer, sexually transmissible infections (STIs), and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) (Morris et al., 2022). Opponents to male infant circumcision argue that it is medically unnecessary (Na et al., 2015), can lead to serious complications (Deacon & Muir, 2022), causes reduced sexual sensitivity of the glans penis (Sorrells et al., 2007) and violates the child’s right to bodily integrity and autonomy (Darby, 2013; Svoboda, 2013; Svoboda et al., 2016).  

It is also important to consider the history of community (and medical) perspectives on circumcision. Excepting longstanding religious circumcision practices among Jews and Muslims, male circumcision in Western countries has roots in Victorian-era moral conservatism. Despite this history in conservatism, very few studies have explored the experiences and attitudes of men who has undergone circumcision, even in high income countries such as the United States where over 70% of males are circumcised (Morris et al., 2016). Moreover, no studies have compared men’s attitudes toward circumcision in countries with a high vs low prevalence of male circumcision. 

We have explored how community perspectives about male circumcision are relevant considerations when assessing a child’s right to bodily integrity and autonomy when using a ‘best-interests framework’ (Mazor, 2021). Our research project will incorporate community experiences and attitudes into the debate on non-therapeutic infant male circumcision. Our aims are to:  

  1. Review the literature on male infant circumcisions and its intersection with rights-based frameworks, medical evidence and sociocultural norms. Guiding questions may include:
    a. Where are the range of rights-based arguments and frameworks expressed in the literature advocating for or against male circumcision? 
    b. Is a best-interests conception for rights to bodily integrity and autonomy appropriate in the context of infant male circumcision? 
    c. To what extent should a best-interests approach consider sociocultural norms and attitudes? 

  2. Develop a research proposal, including research questions, for qualitative fieldwork that seeks to understand community attitudes towards and experiences of circumcision, as well as community understandings and perspectives of the medical debates about male infant circumcision  

  3. Develop a competitive grant application for fieldwork that compares attitudes toward male circumcision in the United States and Australia (i.e., countries with a high vs. low prevalence of male circumcision)