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Nurse Emma worked in a circumcision clinic. What she saw has stayed with her for 25 years.

Warning: this post contains graphic details that may be upsetting to some readers. 

While parents can often be divided on the topic of circumcision, one side we don’t often hear is that of the medical staff who perform them.

Registered nurse Emma* worked in a public circumcision clinic for three months in the early 1990s, assisting midwives and doctors as they carried out the procedure on dozens of babies.

“The parents would arrive at the clinic nervously cradling their tiny babies,” Emma tells Mamamia.

“They had signed consent forms and applied some EMLA numbing cream to their child’s penis. They had to hand their precious son over to me and I would carry them into theatre.”

As the most junior member of the team, Emma was charged with physically restraining the babies during the procedure, which she understandably found very challenging.

“I would have to unwrap the baby and remove their nappy prior to the circumcision. The babies were cold and vulnerable; immediately they would start to fight against me.

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“I am not a big person but I would have to place my hands over their thighs and my forearms on top of their arms to hold them still. My face would be close to theirs and I could see and feel their reaction up close.”

While Emma held each baby as gently but firmly as possible, the doctor placed a plastic device over the baby’s penis and then withdrew the foreskin over the top. A ligature would be tied around it to stop the blood flow and then the doctor would use a scalpel to remove the foreskin.

“Some babies screamed immediately but most took a massive intake of breath before howling loudly. They were all inconsolable – some for 15 minutes – some for half an hour.

“I personally believe, having seen the procedure many times, that the numbing cream made very little difference.”

In total the whole procedure would only take a few minutes. Emma then had to dress the wound and apply pressure to stem the bleeding.

“I had reservations about performing circumcisions on babies prior to working in the clinic as I am not religious, but assisting with the procedure and seeing it happen up close like that confirmed it for me.

“Anyone who says a baby can’t remember has not been in the room with them to experience it. Who knows how much impact it has on a person later in life?”

circumcision australia
"Who knows how much impact it has on a person later in life?” Image: Getty.
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Emma also found it difficult to know how to comfort or console the parents, who she felt hadn’t really understood what circumcision entailed and the risks involved.

“I'd hand these tiny, upset babies back to the parents and the horrified look on their faces was heartbreaking. I witnessed many ‘what have we done?’ looks exchanged between couples. It left me feeling that circumcision was not just unnecessary, but cruel.”

Circumcision rates in Australia and New Zealand have been falling for decades. According to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) data shows that although 85 per cent of Australian males were circumcised in the 1950s, that number is now less than 20 per cent.

Current advice from the RACP is that the level of protection offered by circumcision compared with the complication rates caused by having the procedure, ‘does not warrant routine infant circumcision in Australia and New Zealand’.  Yet many parents still opt to circumcise their sons privately because of religious, cultural or family reasons.

Doctor James Foster*, a GP who has performed nearly 1000 circumcisions on tiny babies, feels similarly to Emma in that the procedure is unnecessary, but in 2019, no longer cruel.

“We always try and make the babies as comfortable as possible by using adequate pain relief, local anaesthetic and numbing cream. It has changed since the early 1990s in that respect,” Dr Foster tells Mamamia. 

“I believe the aftercare would still be a challenge for parents however. I always try and talk couples out of circumcision unless they are absolutely adamant. After all, why perform unnecessary surgery on a healthy infant?”

The procedure may have changed for the better but nurse Emma’s upsetting experience in the circumcision clinic has stayed with her for over 25 years.

“I strongly believe that surgery should only be carried out on people who need it - never on otherwise healthy, tiny babies.

“Whether or not they feel the full intensity of pain from the procedure today, they still can’t give consent. I feel that everyone deserves the right to make an informed choice when it comes to parts of their body being forever altered.”

What is your perspective on circumcision? Tell us in the comments section below. 

* While Emma and Dr Foster are known to Mamamia, names have been changed to maintain their privacy. 

For current guidelines and advice on circumcision in infant males from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, read this PDF.

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