The recent decision by a court in Cologne, Germany, which—following the circumcision-gone-wrong of a four-year-old Muslim boy—declared infant and child circumcision to be a crime and a human rights violation, seems to have started a trend. Shortly thereafter, in both Austria and Switzerland, hospitals announced that they will cease circumcising children in the absence of medical necessity.
Jewish groups cry “anti-Semitism!” (despite the fact that the child in question was not Jewish)—while throwing in the fact that among Muslims, circumcision is also ubiquitous. One group of rabbis called the German court decision “the worst thing to happen since the Holocaust.” Thus, they claim, any effort to ban the cutting of (boy) children violates the religious freedom of peoples who can cite a justification for this ritual from an ancient book.
Meanwhile in New York City, fearful of being called anti-Jewish, the Health Department has allowed ultra-Orthodox Jews to continue a practice, “metzizah b’peh,” by which the circumciser sucks the blood from the freshly cut penis with his mouth. This ritual, practiced only among a small segment of the Orthodox population, has led to two deaths in Brooklyn, and devastating injuries—including blindness and brain damage—in eleven other children. The ritual circumciser knew he was infected with active herpes, a disease survivable for adults, but deadly for infants.
In reaction, some officials have proposed that parents sign a “consent form,” which would do nothing to protect the child, but would allow the City to avoid any responsibility and— instead—blame the parents.
May we ask: Is this what religious freedom looks like?
Is this what we are protecting, in order to assure the world we are not anti-Semitic?
Will this baby, numbed by shock as wine dribbles out of his mouth, thank us for preserving the religious freedom of his parents to hire somebody to cut off part of his penis?
Is it anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim) to advocate for babies and children who have their own right to religious freedom, but are too young to exercise it?
Is it not genuinely anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim to fail to defend the sons of Jews and Muslims? Are they any less worthy of our protection?
Georganne Chapin and John Geisheker
(John Geisheker is an attorney, and the Executive Director of Doctors Opposing Circumcision)
As I write this, I am in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), where tomorrow Marilyn Milos (from NOCIRC) and I will be attending a meeting on infant circumcision, sponsored by the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG). The KNMG, as well as physician organizations from other European countries, are increasingly adopting the position that circumcising children is a bodily assault and a violation of their rights. Yesterday’s German court decision is excellent—in terms of timing and, of course, substance.
Every website that has posted the news is garnering hundreds, even thousands, of comments, this Huffington Post piece being just one example. On the pro-decision side are those who decry forced circumcision as infringing on children’s rights to bodily autonomy. Those who oppose the German court decision defend infant and child circumcision as the right of parents to practice their religion.
Georganne Chapin, Executive Director of Intact America
One of the functions of law in a civil democracy is to promulgate a uniform code of conduct. In a pluralistic society, when certain religious practices contradict or violate this code, or the rights of one individual or group interferes with or breaches the rights of another, the law (and any court that upholds it) provides guidance and—it is hoped—protects potential victims’ rights by prohibiting any such harmful practices.
There is no question that, but for the “freedom of religion” claim, holding down a baby boy and cutting off part of his penis constitutes a forcible physical and sexual assault, with visible and permanent consequences. Defending this practice by relying on a literal interpretation of a religious text ignores the fact that democratic law—while tolerating diverse beliefs—must protect those who cannot protect themselves. To label, or even suggest, that those who would protect babies from harm are anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim) is a tactic of pure intimidation.
Another less explicitly religious—but equally problematic—defense of circumcision relies on parental intent. “We do it for the baby’s own good” (so he’ll be cleaner, so he’ll find a wife, so he won’t be laughed at, etc.). Sorry. The fact that parents who seek to have their children circumcised may have “benign” motives is irrelevant if the custom inflicts harm on the child.
Cultures or particular groups of people who favor corporal punishment defend it as a legitimate form of shaping behavior, but the courts in countries that recognize individual rights don’t buy this rationale. Cultures too numerous to mention condone child-beating and wife-beating as a means of encouraging better behavior in the future. Individuals from those cultures can believe what they want, but if they live in the United States, they are subject to U.S. law, and will be prosecuted for child abuse or “domestic violence” if they violate the law. Professed non-malignant motives don’t justify acts deemed to harm others.
A huge exception has been the circumcision of children. In the U.S., the fact that doctors adopted the practice as a way of making money (using a series of spurious and serially discredited medical rationales) has served for too long as a cover for religious groups claiming circumcision as their right under religious freedom.
Let us hope that the advocacy of European physicians to abolish infant circumcision, and the court ruling handed down in Germany this week, will lead to a change of consciousness with regard to the rights of children among American physicians and religious groups. The law will—as always—follow suit.