German Court Bans Circumcision Despite Centuries-old Religious Argument

An intactivist at work
An intactivist at work

In a decision it's difficult for any reasonable person to object to, a German court banned circumcision this week. Not circumcision per se, mind you. Just circumcision of children too young to make such a decision for themselves. The court's finding was immediately protested by Jewish and Islamic groups. No word yet on whether there's any secular opposition.

The Cologne court heard the case of a 4-year-old Muslim boy treated for post-operative bleeding two days after his circumcision. The ruling -- which is only applicable in the court's jurisdiction, i.e. the greater Cologne area -- said that circumcision could only be performed voluntarily on men old enough to make the decision. The court declined to state at what age a boy would be able to consent to having the greater part of his foreskin, the most sensitive part of the penis, cut off.

The subject of circumcision has become a volatile one in recent years. A movement in Santa Monica tried to ban the procedure on children and infants, but the initiative was ultimately dropped. Those who object to the procedure believe it to be little more than a form of genital mutilation performed on infants and small children. Opponents of circumcision bans generally rely on arguments based on "religious freedom," though some evidence suggests that circumcision might reduce the spread of HIV in heterosexual men.

Some on the Christian right jumped on the opportunity to say that the circumcision ban was bassed on antisemitism. The Christian Broadcasting Network, ever the standard bearer of fair and balanced coverage on all issues of faith, tacitly invoked Nazi Germany, stating that the ruling should "give Jews in Germany pause for thought."

In truth, no one is suggesting that circumcision be banned. Rather, the anti-circumcision forces believe that it is a choice for an adult to make, not one for a child to make for an adult. As stated above, most arguments against circumcision bans are based on "religious freedom" arguments. Who among us, however, would make the argument that a parent had the right to remove a child's finger (or even its appendix for that matter) during infancy, before the child could provide consent, because a book of Bronze Age myths mandated it. While some evidence suggests an actual hygienic purpose, the findings are inconclusive and besides, we could greatly reduce the spread of HIV by removing the penis entirely.

The decision by the German court is a welcome breath of sensibility. By not setting an arbitrary age of consent for the procedure, the court recognizes that one need not have reached the legal age of majority to consent to such a procedure. It also prevents parents from using religious justifications to mutilate their own children. And, y'know... good luck convincing your teenage son to let a doctor lop part of his cock off.

However, groups like CBN are correct in pointing out that the ruling raises larger issues of religious freedom. Indeed, it should cause the secular community pause to think that parents are allowed to permanently and irreparably (at least until stem cell research really ramps up) alter their child's body without meaningful consent. The case provides a template example for how the specter of religious freedom provides license for everything from bullying to employment discrimination.

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