Is circumcision of young boys an affront on their bodily rights?
That is according to a regional court ruling in Cologne, Germany, last spring. This case arose after the circumcision of a four-year-old Muslim boy led to medical complications. The doctor who had performed the operation was taken to court and the court ruled that the boy’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity” had been violated. This ruling caused a lot of hue and cry among Muslims and Jews since they viewed it as an affront to their religious freedom. Although German lawmakers eventually passed a legislation that ensures that parents have a right to have their boys circumcised, this controversy touches on a lot of raw nerves. It is clear that while activists against female circumcision in most countries easily get their arguments across to the targeted societies, intactivistshave a hard time getting theirs across.
I find this particular case to be very interesting for many reasons. Beyond its medical benefits, circumcision means many things to different societies. For Jews and Muslims, circumcision is of great religious significance and has been practiced by these societies since time immemorial. For those African societies that practice it, circumcision is an important rite of passage that signifies a transition from childhood to adulthood. Some American and European societies also practice circumcision; and they too have their own reasons for doing so.
When social/religious practices conflict with personal rights/state laws, which one should take precedence? Does a boy born into a Jewish family have a right not to be circumcised? Obviously, an eight-day old boy cannot exercise such a right, so someone, usually the parent, assumes the responsibility. What happens then when the said boy later decides to renounce their religious beliefs? Or when he decides that the slight loss of sexual sensitivity as a result of circumcision is a big deal for him? Obviously, he cannot reverse the procedure. Could he then possibly sue the parents and the hospital for doing that to him? Or the state for allowing the parents to do ‘such grievous harm’ to his body?
Another twist to the circumcision issue is when national laws or beliefs conflict with the practices of one particular society within the country. Do the majority get to decide for the minority whether they get to keep a distinct part of their culture? While there exists grounds for arguing whether the German court was right in some sense, it is doubtful whether we can say the same about the guys who did this!
The German case has another dimension to it beyond that of the merits/demerits or circumcision and religious/personal rights. The fact that Germany has a long and tragic history of anti-Semitism immediately throws the other arguments out the window. While it is true that in Germany, circumcision is “unfamiliar to the general public, even to most lawmakers”, it is very important to think about the message such a ruling sent to the world about how Germans (or their judiciary) feel about minority groups in their society. To the court, it might have been a straightforward case of what the law allows and doesn’t, but it sure did appear otherwise to the world.