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Religious circumcision

Heiner Kiesel /ag,ai
August 24, 2012

The German Ethics Council has in a public session discussed the religious circumcision of young boys. There's plenty of controversy, but at least the council agrees there should be high medical standards.

Hospital operation (Photo: AP/Noah Berger)
Image: dapd

In Germany, the discussion about the circumcision of children has by now seen many different reports and professional opinions. The chairwoman of the ethics council, Christiane Woopen, said she would prefer to have more time for the many questions that exist, "perhaps by means of setting up a round table discussion." But even the council itself is divided, "and we could be debating the issue for another ten years," said council member Leo Latasch.

After heated discussions over the past weeks, both the supporters of circumcision as well as its opponents are looking for results. Latasch is a member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and trusts his years of experience: He is a doctor, an anesthetist with years of experience, and said he has been present at more than 150 circumcisions. "That was't mutilation," he said. In his view, the removal of the foreskin has mainly advantages: It leads to fewer cases of penis cancer and infection, and even the World Health Organization recommends the procedure.

It puzzles Latasch how in May a district court in Cologne could come to the conclusion that circumcision was a form of assault and, as such, a punishable act.

Ever since that decision, there has been a debate in Germany whether or not religious parents - in most cases Muslims or Jews - should be allowed to have their male offsprings subjected to this genital surgery. As a result, the German Ethics Council began looking into the case, a body that the German parliament created in 2008. The task of its 26 members is to take a stance on controversial social issues and advise parliament on questions of ethics. In the ongoing case, the time it has to do so is running out.

Circumcision instruments (Photo: dpa)
Both Islam and Judaism require their believers to be circumcisedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Legislation due later this year

The current task of the council is to advise parliament on a law to regulate religiously-motivated circumcisions. The Ministry of Justice has made this a high priority case following a parliamentary resolution. Things need to move quickly to reinstate legal certainty after the court ruling. Both the Jewish and Muslim communities want to know what the legal status is for performing religious circumcisions. Israel, too, is pushing for an answer - a scenario that does not leave room for round tables and lengthy discussions.

But this doesn't mean the case is as straight-forward as it might appear to some: The basic right to physical integrity, as defined in the second article of the German constitution, freedom of religion, and parental custody rights all come into play.

Critics aruge that it is irresponsible to cause young children pain and undertake irreparable changes to their bodies with trauma as a consequence.

Supporters, on the other hand, argue that there are no adverse health effects and underline the religious obligation for circumcision. For Latasch, this leaves little to discuss: One cannot be a Jew without being circumcised.and there is no alternative: "There is no such thing as somewhat circumcised," he said. Within the Ethics Council, his Muslim colleague, Ilhan Ilkilic, a medical ethics specialist, agrees, calling circumcision more than just a long-standing tradition: "It's a sign of one's personal connection to God and a religious practice that defines one's own identity," Ilkilic said.

The German Ethics Council meeting (Photo: Patrick Sinkel/dapd)
The Ethics Council meeting held a public meeting over the issueImage: dapd

High medical standards

Reinhard Merkel, a professor for the philosophy of law in Hamburg, is concerned about the circumcision law. A member of the Ethics Council since April, he thinks that Latasch and the others in favor of circumcision are trivializing the operation and its consequences. "It is an agonizing operation for the baby and the child cannot tell when the pain is going to stop." He says complications can occur that can include amputation or death. Merkel thinks its "bizarre" that a religious community permits such bodily harm on a third person.

But Professor Merkel also understands certain limitations to his view. Germany he says has a special obligation toward Jews. "The balance between the right to physical integrity and the special obligation toward Jews creates a dilemma. As a consequence, he suggests the law should include regulations, like an effective anesthesia for babies, required qualifications for persons conducting the circumcision, or maybe even the obligation to have the operation done in a hospital. With his criticism of circumcision, Merkel stands alone in the Ethics Council. But his calls for a high medical standard have found the support of most of the council.