The Battle for Skin: German Court Bans Circumcision

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June 29, 2012 by Nash Riggins

A German court sparked severe controversy this week by ruling that the circumcision of young boys on religious grounds is, in fact, a form of child abuse.

The appeals court in Cologne, which was presiding over a case in which a young Muslim boy became ill after undergoing the procedure, ruled that “circumcision contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on in life about his religious beliefs”, and “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents.”

Unsurprisingly, Germany’s Jewish and Muslim communities – which both practice the ritual of male circumcision almost universally – immediately responded to the ruling with a show of unmitigated outrage. The President of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Dieter Graumann, described the ruling as “outrageous and insensitive”, claiming it to be an “unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination.” Likewise, Aiman Mazyek of the Central Council of Muslims dismissed the ruling as “inadmissible” and “outrageous.”

Critics worldwide have expressed similar shock and anger following the court’s ban of the ritual, labelling it as racist and discriminatory – and, unfortunately, the nation’s turbulent history with regards to the persecution of religious minorities hardly does the court, or its ruling, any favours. Indeed, regardless of how many years pass by, the bitter association of all things German with Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich will follow many individuals all the way to their graves; however, is it really fair to assume that this ban on circumcision is indeed the second coming of an evil Aryan Empire?

The short answer should be a resounding ‘no’ – but that’s not to say that it isn’t religious persecution of another form. It cannot be ignored that the court’s ruling does in fact hinder those wishing to circumcise their children in the name of religion; however, the foolish act of discrimination was most likely incidental – after all, Germany is home to around 4 million Muslims and 200,000 Jews. What’s more, the nation’s Christian leaders appear to have expressed just as much shock regarding the ruling as did their Abrahamic compatriots.

Heinrich Mussinghoff, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Aachen, asserted that any ban on circumcision exposed a contradiction of “basic rights on freedom of religion” and that “the well-being of the child brought up by the judges is not convincing in this very case.”

Likewise, the Protestant Church of Germany also voiced its distaste for the decision, stating that the court’s ruling did not take into account the religious significance of the procedure. Therefore, given this rare unilateral agreement between history’s most litigious religions, it appears safe to assume that the court’s intention was not to discriminate against one or two religions as a secret ode to the personification of pure evil; however, that’s not to say that the ruling wasn’t ill advised.

Although the majority of Europe continues to perpetuate a stigma surrounding circumcision, the procedure is scientifically proven to prevent infection and disease. The World Health Organisation estimates that around 30% of males worldwide have had the procedure, and recommends that circumcision be part of a comprehensive program in order to prevent the transmission of HIV. In addition, a vast majority of studies indicate that the procedure produces a decreased risk of urinary tract infections, protection against penile cancer and a reduced risk of cervical cancer in female sex partners, prevention of balanitis and balanoposthitis, the prevention of phimosis and paraphimosisa and a greatly reduced risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, recent studies conducted by independent organisations throughout Sub-Saharan Africa suggest that male circumcision reduces the risk of transmitting sexual diseases by up to 66%.

Yet it was upon mention of the latter that the Cologne judges perhaps made their most controversial statement within the verdict, mightily asserting that “in central Europe there is no necessity to carry out circumcision as a form of preventive medicine.”

If anything, critics of the court’s ban on circumcision should be arguing that the judges must be more racist than they are anti-Semitic – or perhaps simply that the court has chosen to ignore a proven fact regarding modern health and science. Yet, as previously stated, the ruling – which will most likely be overturned post-haste – lends less to arguments of racism and religious persecution than it does to the German state having finally reached an unmitigated level of liberalism that even they themselves find unsettling.

Contrary to common belief, the German state which emerged from the ashes of the Cold War is one of the more liberal undertakings in modern democracy – and the court ruling in question may be the epitome of said liberalism. Indeed, it has been widely ignored that the judges presiding over this case have not banned circumcision all together, but merely on toddlers who obviously have no say in the matter; the ruling indicates that the procedure violates a child’s bodily integrity, and that they can choose to have the procedure performed later in life when they fully understand its implications.

On the surface, it shouldn’t be as impossible as the world’s media would have us believe to understand the court’s rationale – does that mean that it’s fair? Of course not, as the court simultaneously misunderstood the great significance within the Jewish and Muslim communities of having the ritual performed at a young age. What’s more, it seems preferable to have such a procedure done at a young enough age in which participants are later able to block any memory of the pain which goes hand-in-hand with genital mutilation – but that’s beside the point.

If the court wishes to disregard the scientifically proven health benefits associated with male circumcision – as well as the opinion of some women that a circumcised penis is far more aesthetically pleasing (that’s enough, Ed.) – that’s one thing; however, in effect what this court in Cologne has done is not to pass some anti-Semitic legislation so that Germany’s Jews are forced to perform circumcisions later in life, but instead to make a controversial claim which asserts that a child’s right to choose their religion for themselves unquestionably trumps the right of parents to bestow their religious beliefs upon their children.

So, there you have it: the German state believes in freedom so much that they are willing to disallow parents the ability to shape their children’s beliefs because an act of parenting may trample a child’s freedom of choice. As a result, it’s safe to say that, at this point, perhaps the state’s understanding of religious freedoms has evolved a little too much. German courts aren’t directly persecuting Jews or Muslims by instigating a circumcision ban – they are persecuting parents of all religions who want to ensure their children grow up following a particular religious code.

Indeed, any judge who is willing to instruct parents on the parameters with which they should raise their children is swimming in dangerous waters. True enough, there should be – and are – serious and sensible legal guidelines in place within most nations with which a government can justifiably use in order to protect a child’s welfare; however, a young child simply does not posses the cognitive ability to pick and choose what is right for their body. If given the choice, would a child choose to have their tonsils removed? The answer is doubtful, yet for many children this is a necessary surgical procedure – and in some cases, the principles surrounding the removal of foreskin are no different.

Generally, doctors and parents know what is best for their children – and, if a parent honestly believes that circumcising their young son will save his immortal soul, they will do everything within their power in order to ensure that the procedure is done – whether or not the law allows it. Therefore, does it not make more sense to regulate the safety of said procedure and let it go ahead under the watchful eye of trained doctors rather than in the back of some alley?

It’s okay to place zero faith in a religion, but no judge should have the power with which to tell others that any aspect of their faith is wrong. Perhaps one day it will make sense to discriminate against all religion in order to ensure universal religious freedom; however, for the time being, the judges of the Cologne appeals court don’t appear to have a very dazzling understanding of religion, freedoms and the raising of children.


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