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Uploaded on Apr 19, 2009
In Australia the rise of circumcision followed the British example, but the practice endured longer and affected a greater proportion of boys. Since most doctors were British, were educated in Britain or received their medical training in Australia from British teachers, it is not surprising that they reproduced the orthodoxies of their colleagues and mentors. In the late nineteenth century circumcision was recommended principally as a cure for spermatorrhoea in men and as a preventive of masturbation and nervous complaints in the young, but around 1900 the need to treat "congenital phimosis" in infants and boys and provide protection against the later possibility of venereal disease became paramount. The incidence of circumcision rose sharply between 1910 and 1920 as the First World War intensified fears of syphilis, and by the 1920s most doctors and child care manuals urged early circumcision as the act of a responsible parent. It was at this time that the practice of routinely circumcising normal baby boys before they left the hospital became common. Greater social equality, a less rigid status system and higher living standards are the social factors which probably explain why this advice was followed by parents across the social spectrum, not principally among the upper classes as in Britain.
Although Britain itself dropped routine circumcision in the late 1940s (and New Zealand in the 1950s), Australia followed United States practice, and the figure rose steadily to a peak of about 85 per cent in the mid-1950s, before falling back again: down to 50 per cent by 1975, and only 10 per cent by 1995.
Another significant factor in both the rise and decline of circumcision was the medicalisation of childbirth. In the late nineteenth century the practitioners of the new scientific medicine consolidated their position as the only legitimate source of medical advice and treatment, and by the 1920s the Australian medical profession had achieved a nearly unchallenged dominance over the supply of personal health services . In the process, and with a little help from state legislation, they drove out alternative practitioners, and the rising specialism of obstetrics gradually displaced the midwives who had traditionally looked after women giving birth. In this context the decision of the Commonwealth Government, in 1912, to pay a maternity allowance (a generous 5 pounds) was also important. Expectant mothers tended to use the money to buy medical attendance at their confinement, thus bringing more doctors onto the childbirth scene and ensuring that more women gave birth in a hospital rather than at home. The proportion of births supervised by a doctor, at 63 per cent, was already quite high by 1913, but by 1935 it had increased to 83 per cent.  These developments have often been seen as vital factors in the decline of childbirth mortality, but in 1929 a study by Janet Campbell found that midwives actually lost fewer babies than doctors. 
Doctors were thus in a highly strategic position: being on the spot, if they thought that the baby ought to be circumcised, there was a very good chance that he would be, and for fifty years or so he usually was. But if this medical dominance  can help to explain the rapid rise of neonatal circumcision between the First and Second World Wars, it also helps to explain the rapid decline of the practice in the 1970s and 80s. Once doctors had decided that circumcision was a bad idea, they were in an equally strong position to ensure that the operation was not performed. This point is also relevant to the slowing (and in some states, the slight reversal) of the decline in circumcision incidence in the late 1990s. By this time the medical profession had lost its monopoly position, and parents were increasingly exposed to an often bewildering array of alternative sources of advice on health and child care issues - women's and parenting magazines, informal mothers' groups, websites, bulletin boards and endless reports and commentary in the media etc. Among this flood of information, both old and new circumcision enthusiasts have been able to spread their alarmist message.