A court in Cologne, Germany recently declared circumcision for religious purposes illegal, calling it a form of bodily harm, even if the parents agree to it. The decision was driven by the case of a doctor who had circumcised a four year-old Moslem boy, with his parents’ permission. Complications arose, the boy began to bleed and was taken to hospital, and the doctor was sued for inflicting bodily harm. He was cleared by a lower court because he had had the parents’ permission to perform the operation.
A higher appeals court cleared the doctor as well, but for different reasons. It ruled that there is legal chaos surrounding the issue of circumcision, then decided against the parents’ right to have their male offspring circumcised, apparently because the child’s fundamental right to bodily integrity trumps fundamental parental rights. The essential point is that because circumcision is irreversible, parents must now wait until a boy is old enough to make up his own mind about it.
And the world gasped a little, then held its breath.
But not for long. The reaction was, predictably, outrage.
Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her feelings clear. “If Germany bans circumcision for religious reasons in the case of Jews and Moslems,” she said, “we will look like fools in the eyes of the world. I don’t want Germany to be the only country in the world where Jews may not observe their religious rights.” (translation mine, from iDNES)
Germany must not ban Jewish and Moslem ritual circumcision, Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert told Spiegel and Financial Times Deutschland, adding that “we are glad that Jewish life is returning to Germany.”
Some polls suggest, however, that most Germans welcome the Cologne court’s decision. Some German legal experts oppose the decision but others welcome it because it finally clarifies the law on the subject of circumcision. A similar split exists in the German medical community: one German medical association has advised doctors to stop performing circumcisions to avoid the threat of lawsuits, but another one, the Hartmannbund, stands solidly behind parents’ right to have male offspring ritually circumcised.
When viewed dispassionately, the issue is not at all simple. I see a major legal storm brewing in Germany, with important implications for any other place where there is contention over the balance between religious rights, the rights of children and those of parents – in other words, for the rest of the world.
I personally do not hold with those who claim that the Cologne court’s decision is the worst blow against Jewry since the Holocaust (the opinion, for instance, of Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and chairman of the European Rabbinical Conference). But it does strike me as a violation of religious communities’ right to self-determination, and the rights of parents to guide their children toward a particular goal in life. Moreover, circumcision for boys is now more of a routine medical than a religious procedure, at least in many parts of the Western world, and it is perhaps best to continue to view it as such. If there are religious and/or ethical overtones, so be it: let religious communities treat it as a matter of faith and of parental rights, but society at large, including the law, can continue to see it purely as a medical matter that should remain in the hands of caregivers. Then, in case of complications, there is already in place a well-defined legal means of recourse.
One final thought, and that is about irreversibility, around which the Cologne court’s decision revolves. Yes, true; but there is no evidence that male circumcision has a detrimental effect on bodily integrity or functioning (unless there are complications). Compared to the devastating effects of female circumcision in each and every case, the effects of male circumcision are very nearly nil. I do understand the desire to fight for the “rights of the child:” it is a worthy battle, and some general guidelines are possible. Female circumcision, for instance, is in fact genital mutilation because of its lifelong effects, and it is therefore rightly viewed as a violation of a girl’s rights to bodily integrity. But because of its trivial effects, I do not think that male circumcision can be governed by any such general rule. It must be left in the hands of parents, who must be free to follow the dictates of their consciences.
I hope that Germany’s Bundesgerichthof (Supreme Constitutional Court) ultimately confirms my perspective.