The district court of Cologne, Germany ruled this week that religious circumcision of a child is harmful and that a parent’s jurisdiction over his child does not extend to the practice of circumcision.
Recent years have seen the legality of circumcision called into question, with lobbying wars ensuing between the practice’s proponents and detractors. Jews and Muslims, who consider circumcision an integral part of religion, have fought the increasing onslaught of anti-circumcision activists, who call the religious practice genital mutilation and immoral.
The Cologne ruling, which outlaws circumcision practiced for religious reasons, is a notable beachhead for the anti-circumcision camp. The ruling was sparked by a Muslim doctor’s botched circumcision of a four-year-old boy, who was brought to the emergency room days later, leading the authorities to press charges on the legality of the procedure. The doctor who performed the circumcision was subsequently acquitted because he had acted with the parents’ consent.
After a lower court rejected the suit, Cologne’s district court took up the case, eventually ruling that “The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision” which “contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs.” According to the ruling, the rights of a parents to provide for children, and the rights of religious freedom, do not sufficiently justify circumcision, which the court characterized as “minor bodily harm.”
University of Passau’s Holm Putzke, who has opposed circumcision for years, told the Financial Times of Deutschland that the ruling is “enormously important above all for doctors, because it’s the first time that they have legal certainty.” Putzke was referring to the fact that until now, nebulous legislation and numerous legal loopholes have allowed doctors to circumcise children and later claim ignorance of the procedure’s questionable legality.
For their part, Jewish leaders have been outraged, harshly criticizing the landmark ruling and calling it a violation of religious freedom.
Circumcision’s potentially thorny ethics have not dissuaded a large percentage of parents worldwide from circumcising their children immediately after birth. Estimates of the worldwide percentage of males that are circumcised vary, with a World Health Organization survey pegging the number as high as 30%. Though the majority of those are religiously motivated Muslims, a significant minority circumcises for the procedure’s potential health benefits. Strong evidence cited in the World Journal of Urology and other publications has suggested that circumcision in certain cases reduces the risk of HIV and other STDs, though a general consensus about this has been at best mixed.