Banning Male Circumcision in Cologne, Germany

An upcoming mosque in Cologne. Photo: The Guardian, UK

We have written about female circumcision and the difference between circumcision and female genital mutilation here on Inside Islam, but male circumcision, a common practice in Muslim communities, has not been discussed. Many other groups also circumcise male children for both religious and non-religious reasons. The World Health Organization estimates that about a third of men internationally are circumcised. Around 70% of them are Muslims.

But on Tuesday, a German court in Cologne condemned the practice of circumcising boys, saying that it violates a “fundamental right to bodily integrity.”

Although the ruling does not constitute an outright ban, it will certainly discourage doctors from performing the procedure for fear of prosecution. The court ruled that bodily rights trump religious rights, saying that Jewish and Muslim men who want to follow their religions can make the choice to get circumcised later in life. However, it did not specify at what age boys would be able to make that decision.

According to the court ruling:

The fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents. The child’s body is permanently and irreparably changed by the circumcision. This change runs counter to the interests of the child, who can decide his religious affiliation himself later in life.

The ruling comes out of a case involving a 4-year-old Muslim boy whose circumcision led to medical complications. Although the doctor was charged with “grievous bodily harm,” he was acquitted, and the judge came down against the parents’ right to decide to have their child circumcised.

The ruling is also significant because, although Germany has a law banning female circumcision, it does not have one banning male circumcision. In fact, women’s groups in Germany are critical of the ruling because they believe it will put male circumcision on the same footing as female circumcision. Katrin Altpeter, social minister in the state of Baden-Württemberg, told The Guardian, that the two are incomparable, as female circumcision is a more “drastic act.”

There are about 4 million Muslims and 120,000 Jews in Germany, but as of now, only those in Cologne will be affected. Many prominent Germans, including foreign minister Guido Westerwelle have been critical of the ruling. He said:

Germany is an open-minded, tolerant country where religious freedom is firmly established and religious traditions like circumcision are considered an expression of religious pluralism.

Jewish, Muslim, and Christian groups have all criticized the ruling, saying it infringes on religious freedoms. Germany’s two main Christian churches and the Central Council of Jews issued statements condemning the ruling. The Central Council of Muslims also released a statement saying that the ruling constitutes an “inadmissible interference” in the rights of parents. The statement reads:

Freedom of religion is highly valued in our constitution and cannot be the play-thing of a one-dimensional case law which, furthermore, consolidates existing prejudices and stereotypes.

Even the United Nations’ special rapporteur on religious freedom, Heiner Bielefeldt, weighed in on the issue, calling the ruling “nonsense.”

Many groups advocating for a separation of religion and public life have hailed the ruling as a victory, however. One called circumcision “religiously motivated violence against children.”

But others have argued that male circumcision does not constitute violence, and in fact, the World Health Organization even recommends male circumcision in certain countries. Since the basis of the ruling relies on the assertion that the practice of circumcision represents bodily harm, religious and other groups have dismissed the ruling as baseless.

The situation brings up several questions. First, does male circumcision constitute bodily harm? Perhaps more fundamentally, should parents be allowed to make the decision to circumcise their children?

At this point the implications of the ruling are still unclear. The court did not ban the practice, and its jurisdiction only extends to Cologne. But critics say the intention is to set a precedent for other courts, setting personal rights above religious rights.

What do you think about the court’s ruling? Does male circumcision constitute bodily harm? Is the ruling an effort to stifle religious rights, or is the court correct to argue that circumcision should not be carried out without consent? Do you think the ruling will have significant consequences? Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

4 thoughts on “Banning Male Circumcision in Cologne, Germany

  1. I don’t know whether the ruling is intended as a way to curb the practice of Islam (which wouldn’t be the first time here in Europe) or the judges are genuinely concerned about the human right they mention, but in principle this doesn’t violate the freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is there to ensure no laws are made that specifically forbid certain religious beliefs/practices on the grounds that they belong to a certain religion, it is not there to justify any and all possible religious practices. In the old Nahua religion of the Aztec empire, for example, people used to sacrifice their children to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. I don’t think anyone today would justify something like that, so there must be limits to the practice of religion and the limit I am familiar with is: you’re free to practice your religion unless it violates the law.

    So I’d say: bodily harm should be forbidden even if it is a religious practice. Which leads to the next question: is (male) circumcision bodily harm?

    I don’t know the exact legal definition of bodily harm, but I think if you’re talking about the removal of a body part which generally has negative medical effects and is without the person’s consent, that would suffice. I’m not sure what most courts’ verdict on parents forcing piercings onto their babies is (don’t even know if that has ever happened) but I would expect courts to forbid it on the grounds I mentioned above.

    However, this brings into question whether male circumcision falls in that category. It’s obvious that a body part is removed, and in the case of Islam it’s also obvious that we’re talking about people who are too young to give consent, so the big issue is whether it generally has negative medical effects. I’ve heard of the benefits of male circumcision before and this article mentions the WHO recommending it for countries where AIDS is widespread, so I’m not sure this is the case.

    Now if we, for the sake of argument, assume that male circumcision has generally positive effects, we can compare it to another widespread practice: cutting a baby’s umbilical cord. This is not a necessary practice, if it is left intact (in a lotus birth) it will dry and fall off naturally after a couple of days, yet it is standard protocol in most hospitals. The medical effects of cutting the cord are scarcely understood. This is a case where a body part is removed without the person’s consent, but with no proven negative medical effects, and it is not considered bodily harm at all, so I’d say the negative medical effects are a necessary factor in deciding whether a practice constitutes bodily harm.

    So my conclusion is: leave it up to the WHO. If they say male circumcision has a lot of negative medical effects, ban it. If they say male circumcision has more positive medical effects than negative medical effects, don’t ban it. If they say this differs per country, let the laws differ per country and most importantly if they say specific medical training is needed to perform a healthy male circumcision, let the law require that training.

  2. “Which leads to the next question: is (male) circumcision bodily harm?”

    Simple answer: Yes.
    In Germany ANY medical procedure is “bodily harm”. It only says some bodily harm may be excused from being unlawful. For example necessary medical procedures are bodily harm, but lawful.

    The court said this (extremely simplified, the actual reasoning is longer than the initial article)

    It’s bodily harm.
    In Europe it’s not necessary.
    It violates the childs right of self-determination.
    =>It’s not justified bodily harm.

  3. Religious freedom is important, but does not include the right to cut off a part of somebody else’s genitals without their consent. Jews and Muslims should welcome this invitation to take their religion into the 21st century.

  4. I think it’s important that we be allowed to practice our religions and sincere beliefs without infringement. If circumcision is one of those beliefs so be it. It’s been practiced for millenia. I hope all religious freedom can be respected in all non-violent matters, such as this.