The ruling of a German regional court against the practice of circumcision has intensified a debate on religious freedom across much of Europe.
The ruling stated that the practice of circumcision inflicts bodily harm and infringes on bodily integrity. Hospitals in Germany have suspended the practice until further clarification is obtained, and some hospitals in Switzerland and Austria have also adopted similar measures until the legal situation and ethical issues are clarified. Two years ago a German Jewish weekly had observed that the discussion on circumcision remained an academic debate, but could gain significance over time (Juedische Allgemeine, Feb. 18, 2010).
With the ruling in Cologne, Jewish observers now fear that it is sending ripples across Europe, and a threat to circumcision might grow (Jewish Chronicle, July 26). The ruling followed a problem of bleeding of a four-year-old boy from a Turkish Muslim family who had him circumcised by a doctor in 2010. The boy was then treated at a hospital, but the case was reported and judicial authorities prosecuted the doctor. He was first acquitted, but the judgment was appealed. While equating circumcision with bodily harm when done on a person unable to consent and without medical reasons, the court said that the doctor should not be fined, since he had acted in good faith and the legal situation had been unclear. While a judgment by a regional court is not enforceable in the entire country, and still less abroad, it nevertheless creates a precedent, hence the turmoil.
Chancellor Merkel has publicly stated her irritation over the ruling, commenting that her country could become a laughing stock if it failed to overturn the court ban, and most members of parliament have urged the federal government to create a legal basis for allowing circumcision.The German ruling ignited a debate that had been brewing for some time, says University of Zurich criminologist Martin Killias (SwissInfo.ch, July 26).
Actually, the debate had started in 2008 in a small circle of legal experts with the publication of an article by a professor at the University of Passau, Holm Putzke (Religioscope, July 25).
In this scholarly article, Putzke concluded that the state should protect children against any infringement of their health and bodily integrity over the rights of parents to choose for the child. When notified about a case of circumcision for non-medical reasons, judicial authorities should intervene. Analyses by Putzke and some of his colleagues who expressed similar views in the following years were actually quoted in the ruling of the court in Cologne. According to the ruling, a ban on circumcision in no way interferes with religious freedom, but rather promotes it, since concerned individuals would be able to give informed consent when reaching an age when they can decide for themselves.
The debate on circumcision presents a striking case not only of different understandings of what religious freedom means, but also of competing rights. It appears also as an extension of the debate on female genital mutilation (for which no health benefits are claimed, in contrast with arguments supporting circumcision). A number of Christian religious leaders have expressed concerns over the ruling as well, since it might signal attempts by authorities to take precedence over parental rights in matters of religious education.
They also criticize the fact that the court has focused on strictly legal aspects, without any consideration of cultural and historical ones. However, people supporting a ban on circumcision answer that a number of practices that used to be widespread have changed with time and that the issue is not one of banning religious circumcision, but rather of applying legal rules on corporal integrity that have been disregarded when circumcision is concerned. Thus Europe may now be entering into a debate that anti-circumcision “intactivists” have already been promoting for some time in the United States.