German Court Makes Circumcision for Religious Reasons a Crime

Patrick Goodenough | June 27, 2012 | 6:15am EDT
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Newborn Benjamin Abecassis is photographed during his Jewish circumcision ceremony in San Francisco on May 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(Update: Adds reaction from anti-circumcision activists)

( – A German court has ruled that circumcising male infants for religious reasons, as Jews in particular have done for thousands of years, constitutes grievous bodily harm and is a crime, regardless of parental consent.

A public health specialist who is also a traditional Jewish circumciser called the ruling “stupid,” suggesting Wednesday that while “politically-correct modern liberal thinkers” would not be open to persuasion about Jewish values, they should at least consider studies finding wide-ranging health benefits from the procedure.

Anti-circumcision groups – “Intactivists” – welcomed the ruling and urged courts elsewhere to follow suit.

In a ruling bound to fuel a long-running debate over circumcision, a regional court in Cologne said Tuesday that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.”

“A child’s body is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision,” German media outlets quoted the ruling as saying. “This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later about his own religious affiliation.”

“The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised,” it said.

For Jews, however, circumcision of baby boys at eight days has been a key tenet of faith for some 4,000 years. Prescribed by God in Genesis 17, it symbolized that a person was in covenant with his Creator.

The removal of the foreskin is also a rite of passage in Islam – sometimes at birth, sometimes at seven or at puberty. In some African cultures, circumcision plays a part in manhood rituals in the mid- to late-teens.

Millions of parents in America and other western countries routinely circumcise their baby boys, for reasons including hygiene, health benefits or family tradition.

The case in Germany arose when prosecutors charged a doctor in a lower court with grievous bodily harm, after a four-year-old Muslim boy he circumcised experienced complications and bleeding.

That lower court acquitted the doctor, on the grounds he had acted with the parents’ consent and so had been within the law.

In Tuesday’s regional court decision, the acquittal held, since the court said the doctor was not aware that the procedure was illegal. Now that the court has declared it so, the ruling may well set a legal precedent applicable in future cases.

The head of Germany’s Jewish Central Committee, Dieter Graumann, called the ruling an “outrageous and insensitive act.”

Prof. Fred Ehrlich of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales in Australia has circumcised thousands of boys, both as a surgeon and as a mohel, an official Jewish circumciser.

Invited to respond to the court ruling, he told Wednesday it was “stupid, if nothing else, but then we know the law is an ass.”

“There is no way of persuading politically-correct modern liberal thinkers of the role of Jewish values, but they missed the latest statistical research data,” Ehrlich said.

Over the past decade or so, studies have found significant health benefits from the practice, including a lower risk of contracting HIV-AIDS among heterosexual men, lower rates of infection from the virus that causes cervical cancer among the wives or partners of circumcised men, and most recently, a slightly lower risk of developing prostate cancer.

“Circumcision is akin to vaccination,” Ehrlich said. “It has significant benefits in preventing urinary infection in infants, with its small but not negligible mortality rate, in preventing AIDS in adulthood, in preventing penile cancer as well as cervical cancer in female partners.

“There is no doubt about the benefit of circumcision, so all we need to do is find out the best time.”

The ideal age was undoubtedly the biblically mandated eighth days after birth, Ehrlich argued.

“Our Patriarchs were on the ball because neonates profit most – urinary infection, phimosis – the operation is easiest and can be done with local anesthetic and the earlier the better,” he said. (Phimosis is the inability to retract the foreskin.)

“The first few days of life may be associated with excessive bleeding but the blood clotting mechanisms are improved by about one week of age,” Ehrlich said. “So, the eighth day is close to the perfect time to carry out this public health measure – forget about the Jews.”

Critics, such as the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC) in the U.S. and the International Coalition for Genital Integrity (ICGI) strongly oppose what they regard as a medically-unnecessary procedure, which some critics say amounts to mutilation.

“We applaud the German court ruling, that acknowledges the rights of all children to genital autonomy and believe that courts worldwide should follow suit,” NOCIRC executive director Marilyn Milos said in response to queries.

“From the baby’s perspective, circumcision is an assault,” ICGI director Dan Bollinger told “The German court realizes this, too.”

“The consensus among Intactivists I’ve talked to is that this ruling is the latest in a long line of rulings and legislation increasing children’s rights,” Bollinger added. “Intactivism is at the same chaotic stage as Women’s Liberation was fifty years ago and Abolition was a century-and-a-half ago.”

He said the U.S. Constitution “guarantees that all citizens, including children, have an inalienable right to be secure in their own bodies. Parents cannot run roughshod over children’s rights whether they are being mean or mean well.”

Georganne Chapin, executive director of another group, Intact America, called the ruling “clear-headed and consistent with the principles of universal human rights.”

“Just as western democracies have adopted laws against the genital cutting of girls, irrespective of the culture or religious beliefs of their parents, we believe that it is only a matter of time before all western democracies refuse to tolerate religious or cultural justifications for the genital cutting of boys.”

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