Late last month, a court in Cologne, Germany outlawed circumcision of young boys; a practice viewed as an integral part of Jewish and Muslim religions. Faith leaders in these two communities are outraged and see the new law as a harbinger of religious intolerance. I place child health above and beyond ritual practice. But I want to think critically about this new law because I am not convinced it is only about public health.

“…the court found that the child’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity” was more important than the parents’ rights [to religious freedom].” — New York Times

The Cologne court decided this based on a case of a 4-year-old Muslim boy whose parents (immigrants from Turkey) took him to a doctor for ritual circumcision. Several days later, the child was admitted to a hospital for what has been described as “profuse bleeding” or “medical complications” as a result of the circumcision. The physician who treated him for these complications reported the case to authorities and that led to a prosecution of the doctor who performed the circumcision. The accused doctor was acquitted by a lower court. The prosecutor took the case to a higher court in Cologne who also found the performing doctor non culpa, but decided action was needed and indicted the procedure instead. I don’t have enough facts to say the performing physician should have borne legal ramification. As far as I can tell, the child in question survived and is fine.*

This ruling only applies the the city of Cologne, where this court has jurisdiction, but Jewish and Muslim groups throughout Germany have been outspoken in their opposition of this new law. Both groups view the law as an infringement on religious freedom because they ritually circumcise boys according to religious doctrine. Both groups believe this is another in a string of recent discriminatory practices in Europe.

“…the ban poses a threat to the existence of the Jewish community in Germany and is a new example of creeping prejudice in European law against non-Christians, after a Swiss ban on minarets [minaret defined], French and Belgian bans on Islamic veils in public, and an attempted Dutch ban on halal meat [halal defined].” — Chicago Tribune

Jews and Muslims are not the only ones who see this law as an affront to religious freedom. The German Parliament is set to pass “federal” law that protects parental choice to circumcise for their male infant or child. Note the specified gender…male infant or child. For if anyone suggested female circumcision be protected, there would surely be an international uproar railing against female genital mutilation — myself amongst them. So why do we treat boys differently?

There is a long history of debate about male circumcision and the health benefits and risks associated with it. Some believe male circumcision is rooted in cultural materialism — the idea that cultural practices emerge for practical reasons like economic stability or improving health outcomes, anthropologically speaking — rather than in religious tradition, as most theologians would argue. If you believe the cultural materialist argument, then you believe there is some practical (non-religious) reason circumcision began as a ritual and possibly a reason to continue it. Indeed, there is research that argues male circumcision provides a health benefit.

However, some of this research has been challenged as being methodologically flawed and not replicable. Also, I can’t find any research that argues the benefits are so great that male circumcision is recommended, even though it became fairly standard practice in the United States after World War II. There is also research that not circumcising boys has health benefits. The evidence for and against is so contrary, it is confusing and hard to decipher. The CDC seems to suggest it is a good idea, but the American Association of Pediatrics is on the fence and defers to parental choice.

“Although there are risks to male circumcision, serious complications are rare. Accordingly, male circumcision, together with other prevention interventions, could play an important role in HIV prevention…” — Centers for Disease Control

“In the pluralistic society of the United States in which parents are afforded wide authority for determining what constitutes appropriate child-rearing and child welfare, it is legitimate for the parents to take into account cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions, in addition to medical factors, when making this choice.” — American Association of Pediatrics

Suffice it to say we treat males differently because there may be health benefits that warrant the risks associated with circumcision. There are no health benefits associated with female circumcision, only health risks.

“There is no comparison between the two. The equivalent of “female circumcision” in males would be to remove the entire penis and sew the scrotum over the area, leaving just enough opening for urination.” — Ask Dr. Eva

Still some see genital alteration of children as genital mutilation, regardless of gender because children cannot offer informed consent to the procedure. [Jax is included in this group.] And this was the major impetus behind the Cologne court ruling — that children cannot protect their own “bodily integrity” because they cannot speak for themselves, so the court was speaking for them. I understand this and admire the court for wanting to advocate for children. But I am still not convinced this was their only motivation. The court did not rule against body piercing, which is also performed on Hindu children for religious reasons, without anesthesia. The court did not rule against any other ritual body modifications performed on children. The court singled out one case and one procedure — a procedure that disproportionately affects Jews and Muslims. Maybe that was just happenstance. Maybe the court would have made the same decision if the law had opposed a Protestant ritual (the largest branch of Christianity in Germany). I just don’t know.

If I ever have a son, I don’t know that I would choose circumcision for him. I do not find the evidence for medical benefit compelling. But I want to be able to make that choice. I think parents should be educated, not legislated in this matter. I don’t think it was appropriate for the Cologne court to deprive parents of that choice.

What about you realm? Do you think the court acted in the best interest of children?



* I find it ironic I can’t locate information about the health and well-being of the child in question. This whole case is predicated on the idea that circumcision puts children at too great a risk. And yet, no one seems concerned enough to report whether or not this child is well and happy after his ordeal.