Banning circumcision: an attack on religious freedom

The Progress Party, Norway’s third-largest political party, recently backed a bill that would ban ritual male circumcision for under-16s. Couched in the language of human rights and welfare, the law claims that circumcision inflicts mental and physical harm and is a serious violation of children’s human rights. In supporting the proposed law, the Progress Party is joining a growing number of scholars, activists and politicians now arguing that all children, regardless of sex or gender, should be protected from such intimate violations.

Norway’s proposal is not without precedent in Europe. In 2013, a regional court in Germany ruled that any child undergoing circumcision must be old enough to discuss it with a doctor. According to the ruling, the child’s right to self-determination trumps his parents’ traditional right to have him circumcised in accordance with their beliefs.

A united front of Jews, Muslims and Christians in Europe and the US protested the German law change. The Central Council of Jews called it ‘an unprecedented and dramatic intrusion on the right to self-determination of religious communities’. The Islamic Religious Community argued that male circumcision is a ‘harmless procedure, a tradition that is thousands of years old and highly symbolic’. The European Jewish Association even asked Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene. And, following accusations of anti-Semitism, the German parliament passed a different law, allowing qualified members of religious communities to perform the operation in the first six months of a boy’s life. After that, circumcision must be performed by a physician.

Similar attacks on religious freedom are happening all across Europe. Muslims and Jews in the Netherlands have challenged the Royal Dutch Medical Association, which considers medical participation in non-therapeutic circumcisions to be unethical. Those in favour of male circumcision feel that such rulings are an attack on their religion and way of life. They also feel that campaigns against cultural practices reflect an anti-immigrant sentiment.

In the US, where circumcision remains a relatively common procedure, things are no better. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has said that it does not believe parents have a right to give proxy consent for non-therapeutic circumcision. Instead, it suggests that the proxy is limited to providing ‘informed permission for diagnosis and treatment of children’. But because ritual circumcision is viewed as neither diagnosis nor treatment, the AAP does not grant parents the power to consent on behalf of their child.

If the Norway bill is passed, it will have major repercussions. The Islamic text the Hadith says that Muslim men should ‘cut the things that grow’ for hygienic reasons. The 3,000-year-old Jewish ritual of circumcision reflects Jews’s covenant with God – the foreskin is usually removed by a mohel when the boy is eight days old. Side effects are rare, and increasingly disputed. But as one Jewish father wrote: ‘What matters to me are the religious benefits of giving one’s son a bris – or brit milah (covenant of circumcision). They are, of course, not as objectively measurable as medical benefits, but they are even greater.’

Banning circumcision might make politicians feel like they are striking a blow for equality and human rights. But such a move would disregard the religious and cultural weight the practice carries. Clamping down on religious freedom is a retrograde step. Parents should remain free to act in what they believe to be the best interests of their children. If that means choosing to circumcise their son, so be it.

Brid Hehir is a writer, researcher and a retired nurse. Visit her blog, FGM/C Shifting Sands.

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