A ban on circumcision?
A draft law intended to ban circumcision for non-medical purposes was examined by the Icelandic parliament. According to its proposers, the removal of the foreskin represents a genital mutilation that is damaging to the physical integrity of the child, comparable to excision in FGM. Representatives of several political groups supported the proposal, as did fifty percent of Icelanders, according to a survey. The proposed law has now been withdrawn for the moment. Even though it would affect only 0.5% of the population, a law of this kind would effectively call into question a religious practice that is common to Judaism and Islam and is widespread throughout the rest of the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that in 2007, 30% of the world’s male population was circumcised.
Circumcision cannot be compared to excision
Opening up such a debate in this day and age is paradoxical in many respects. For one thing, it was discovered many years ago that circumcision has certain medical benefits. In particular, a Canadian study carried out in 2015 identified a reduction in the incidence of urinary infections among young boys who had been circumcised, as well as a lower risk of sexually transmitted diseases and certain cancers in men and their partners. Moreover, contrary to the claims of critics of circumcision, the practice is not comparable to mutilation. The WHO refuses to use this term, considering the social significance and medical effects of circumcision and excision to be “drastically different”.
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe also believes that these practices are “by no means comparable”. Unlike circumcision, excision is not prescribed by religion, but by custom; moreover, it is dangerous and has serious consequences for women, which justifies its prohibition. The fact that there have been practically no legal challenges to circumcision also reveals how few of those affected by the practice call it into question. By way of illustration, while 14% of French men stated in 2008 that they had been circumcised, “there has not yet been any case law, apparently, to qualify circumcision in the language of criminal law” (Journal of Administrative Law (JDA), 2017).
The false freedom of orphans
The proposed Icelandic law is not actually intended to address any medical issues, but to protect children from any religious determinism that parents who belong to minority communities might wish to impose on them. If circumcision is a matter for concern, it is because it is “a marker for life inscribed in the flesh of a minor from a very young age” (G. Gonzalez and F. Curtit).For the Jews, it is a symbol of the covenant with God, a divine commandment. The contemporary ideology of individualism is opposed to a child being a son who inherits a family and religious tradition, seeing this as protection of his freedom. But this idea of entering into existence naked and free is an illusion, a false concept of freedom that ignores the deeply social and religious nature of humankind, and one that prefers the freedom of orphans over the dignity of sons.
A violation of European and international law
To prohibit circumcision would, moreover, be a violation of the European and international laws ensuring religious freedom and the rights of parents with regard to the religious education of their children. To ban circumcision would not only violate parents’ rights, but also children’s rights “to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents” (Comité des ministres du Conseil de l’Europe). This is why, in December 2012 German legislation confirmed the legality of the circumcision of infants, provided it is undertaken “according to best medical practice” , overturning a case in which the Cologne tribunal unwisely condemned the practice.
The countries in which this debate has arisen should take inspiration from the German legislation and seek to find an understanding that is more firmly rooted in justice and freedom.
Director of the European Centre for Law and Justice
The European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) recently produced a report entitled Circumcision, an ethical and legal approach to a religious precept that is under threat, which can be found on the website www.eclj.org.
Translated from the original text in French
EN The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.