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Circumcision in New Zealand
Clipart - A kiwi

Cultural history and geography

White Australians and New Zealanders regard themselves as closely culturally and socially related. Travel and residence between the two countries is unrestricted, and free trade agreements mean that they are moving towards a common market. However there are many differences between the two. One point often mentioned is that New Zealand had no convict transportation, but then neither did the states of South Australia or Western Australia. Far more significant is that New Zealand has had much less non-English immigration. On the other hand, it has had much more immigration from South Sea Islands. Perhaps the most striking difference is in the accents - most non-North Americans find it difficult to distinguish US and Canadian accents, yet anyone can tell an Aussie from a Kiwi. This is all the more surprising since Sydney is much closer to Auckland than it is to Perth!

Map of New Zealand  - Physical Map of New Zealand - Political

Maps of New Zealand - Physical and Political

The Maoris

The Maoris are relatively recent arrivals to New Zealand, having been there less than 800 years. All the evidence suggests that New Zealand was uninhabited until then. They came from Polynesia, and seem to have arrived in several waves of migration, setting up an agricultural civilization. Polynesians traditionally circumcise, usually using a 'dorsal slit' technique, but somehow the Maoris mostly abandoned it, perhaps as part of the upheaval of settling into a very different landscape from what they had known. One tribe only maintained the practice until colonial times, but now Maoris are usually uncircumcised.

Nowadays New Zealand has sizeable community of Polynesian peoples from Tonga, Samoa, Nuie and Fiji. These people have circumcision as an important part of their culture. In Auckland there is a clinic which is run by Pacific Island doctors which performs circumcisions for the Pacific community. Many of these are, apparently, dorsal slit which is the Tongan method although the "American style" is also available. This clinic will also perform circumcision on adults if requested. An anonymous correspondent states "For non-Maori Polynesians (Samoans, Tongans and Niueans) the circumcison rate by puberty approaches 100% and a boy who is not circumcised will be grabbed by a "raiding party" of his uncles and taken forcibly to be clipped."

A 2002 academic study of Islander boys and their parents in Christchurch found that all the fathers were circumcised and intended to have their sons done. Those boys who were not yet done all wanted to be circumcised, and the vast majority intended to have their future sons done. Most parents regarded it as obligatory - but there was no mention of raiding uncles! The preferred age for circumcision was between 6 and 10. While it was mentioned that the old Polynesian tradition was a dorsal slit, for the cohort studied the current practice was a full circumcision. The problem identified in this study was that public hospitals in Christchurch would not circumcise these boys, and private hospitals were mostly too expensive since these people were mostly in lower income brackets. Nevertheless all the circumcised boys were done by a doctor, half in NZ and half in the islands. The paper proposed that hospitals should reconsider their criteria for circumcision.

Pakeha - white New Zealanders

The links between New Zealand and Australia extend to most professional associations, so in the medical field we have the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and so on. Given the unified structure of the medical profession between Australia and New Zealand, one might expect that rates of infant circumcision would be the same in both countries. While there are parallels in that it was common in the mid 20th century and has declined since, there are major differences. It doesn't seem ever to have been as common as in Australia, and declined much earlier and more steeply. One factor is that New Zealand has always had stronger ties to the UK, so Gairdner's paper probably had more influence. Another is that New Zealand has a very small population, so outside the major cities individual doctor's opinions had a strong influence. It is not so easy to swap between doctors in New Zealand (though perhaps not quite so difficult as in the UK). In Australia freedom of choice has always been paramount and nobody is tied in any way to one doctor. This may help to explain why fundamentally similar policies led to somewhat different outcomes.

The following messages from correspondents show how circumcision rates have changed erratically from time to time and place to place in New Zealand


I was circumcised as an infant in 1942. My estimate is that about 70% of my schoolmates were also circumcised. However when my brother was born in 1947 my mother had difficulty finding a doctor willing to perform the procedure and was eventually persuaded not to pursue the matter further.



I grew up and was circumcised in New Zealand. Circumcision was never widely supported by society or the medical establishment there in my opinion. Therefore who was or wasn’t depended very much where you were born. NZ had a society that very much did whatever the doctor said. In the small North Island town where I was born no boys born around my time were circumcised at birth. (I was born in 1965). However only five years later all baby boys were done. I can only attribute this to a change in doctor in this small town.

We moved to Auckland and the first circumcised contemporary I saw was at primary school. A boy and his brother were the only ones done. Then at high school, uncut was suddenly the minority. My school drew from the affluent Auckland suburbs.

The greatest point about all of this is that circumcision in NZ has always been highly localised and while boys born in the private hospitals in Auckland may have been almost exclusively circumcised those born at the same time in public or rural hospitals were not.



“...in 1964 in Dunedin, where rates were lower than the national average, a quarter of all babies born in hospital were circumcised. Three years later in Christchurch, a similar student study showed a rate of 65%. In 1972, half of Wellington boys born in hospital were circumcised, while four years later in Dunedin, the rate had dropped to 5%. By 1977 about a quarter of all Christchurch boys were cut and in the same year in Wellington, the rate was 21.5%. The last comprehensive study was in 1989 in the Waikato [North Island, the area around Hamilton - See right-hand map above - Ed.], which showed a regional rate of 7%, compared with only 1% of male births at Waikato Hospital [in Hamilton].”

Excerpt from The Foreskin’s Lament by Nick Smith
Metro, September 1999.


It’s consistent with this decline that a GP estimated for me that the rate is now under 1%. In his city, Palmerston North, no doctor will do it. Anon


In the late 1950s and early 1960s NZ medicine followed the British example and began to move away from routine infant circumcision. Numbers of children receiving RIC have steadily declined and now the situation is that virtually no RIC is performed in public hospitals. Parents have to go private should they wish circumcision for their boys.



There does seem to be evidence that attitudes are changing. The Editor was interviewed a few years back, about the time of the latest RACP position statement, by a New Zealand newspaper which clearly suggested that there was renewed belief in the merits of circumcision.

References, Sources and Acknowledgements

Mahnaz Asfari, Spencer W. Beasley, Kiki Maoate, 2002. Attitues of Pacific parents to circumcision of boys. Pacific Health Dialog 9(1), 29-33 link to full text

Policy Statement CIRCUMCISION OF INFANT MALES, Royal Australasian College of Physicians - September 2010.

Many correspondents to the former Circlist discussion group and the present web site

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