A German court in Cologne ruled that circumcision for religious reasons is a crime. Doctors who circumcise infants or children for religious reasons alone can be charged with causing bodily harm, even if the procedure is done at the request of the parents.
Religious Freedom versus Bodily Integrity
Unlike the United States where more than half of males are circumcised, circumcision in Germany takes place primarily within the Muslim and Jewish communities. According to Spiegel, the key question considered by the court was whether the parents religious freedom should be given more weight than the child’s right to self determination and bodily integrity. In this case, the court determined that the child’s right to self determination has priority. Additionally, the court noted that circumcision threatens the child’s well-being.
This decision stems from the case of a four year old boy who was circumcised in November 2010, according to the wishes of his Muslim parents. Two days later, he was brought to a hospital emergency room because of heavy bleeding. The doctor was charged in this case, but the court determined that the circumcision was executed properly and the doctor was acquitted.
However, the court then needed to address the issue of the legality of circumcision for non-medical reasons. After considering the issues, it decided that the circumcision did cause bodily harm and was not in the best interest of the child. It ruled that the parents consent, and religious freedom, does not outweigh the child’s right to be protected from bodily harm.
According to the Financial Times Deutschland, doctors performing circumcisions in Germany have been working in a legal “grey zone” when they performed circumcisions for religious reasons without any medical necessity. Until now, they could claim no knowledge of any case where religious circumcision was considered bodily harm by the courts. This is now no longer the case. From that perspective, although the decision of this court is not binding in other jurisdictions, it is expected to influence the interpretation of law in the future and may influence the willingness of doctors to perform circumcisions.
Mixed Reaction to Court’s Decision
The court’s decision is sure to be considered a win by intactivists who support the right of children, both male and female, to genital integrity and who argue that the procedure is harmful and not medically supported.
However, the Muslim and Jewish religious communities, where circumcision is a religious tradition, are outraged at the court’s ruling. According to the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Aryeh Goldberg of the Rabbinical Center of Europe commented that:
The Court’s decision is unacceptable and gravely violates religious freedom. The decision is contrary to human rights charter of the European Union, to which the German legal system is committed, and undermines the basic right to worship in the German Constitution.
The Muslim and Jewish communities in Germany are reviewing the ruling and have not yet made any formal comment.
State, Child, Parenting and Religious Tradition
The relationship between the state, the child and a family’s religious background is a complicated one in Germany. As with any country that has become a melting pot of immigrants from around the world and different religious traditions, the balance between establishing national laws and values, and respecting different beliefs is a difficult one. In this particular case, Germany’s past persecution of Jews makes the issue even more complex and controversial.
Interestingly, as this issue regarding male circumcision is playing out in the courts and the media, Germany is also discussing stiffer penalties for female genital mutilation. According to Deutsche Welle:
For many African parents, circumcision belongs to the traditions of their home country which they continue to follow long after they have emigrated. Either they have the operation performed illegally here in Germany, or back home. Dirk Wüstenberg is a German lawyer. He said that if these children are be protected effectively from harm, both in Germany and elsewhere, then German law needs to be clarified and toughened.
Different, yet related issues have been raised with regards to homeschooling. The German government claims that attending school is both a right and a duty for all children. They interpret the right to an education (in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child) as a requirement to attend school, and therefore do not allow parents to homeschool their children for religious or other reasons. This has been challenged in the past, but not successfully, with parents being fined and jailed for keeping their children home.
What do you think? Is the German court’s decision an appropriate way to protect the bodily integrity of children or is quashing religious freedom of parents?
Photo credit: Ran Yaniv Harstein on flickr