Circumcision in Germany
A row over a ruling that circumcision for non-medical reasons is a crime
The parents, both Muslims, wanted their four-year-old son to be circumcised. They found a Muslim doctor to do the operation. But there were complications, and the boy ended up in hospital. A prosecutor accused the doctor of injuring the child, and the case went to court in Cologne. The court decided that, although the doctor was innocent, circumcising an infant fornon-medical reasons violates Germany’s constitutional protection of every person’s bodily integrity—and should thus be a crime.
Cue the sort of controversy Germany hates most, one that offends Jews as well as Muslims. As it happens, the movement against circumcision is spreading, from California, where “intactivists” have tried to ban it, to Israel, where some parents now optfor brit shalom (the “covenantof peace”) as a ritual alternative. But the Cologne verdict breaks new ground. Sweden has a law setting medical rules over who may conduct male circumcisions.
The outrage over the Cologne ruling was immediate and immense. Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, asserted that the verdict, if it is upheld, would make Jewish life in Germany,just as it is blooming again, practically impossible.
Both sides have arguments. One one hand, Germany’s constitution, written after the second world war to prevent any repeat of Nazi horrors, assures the rights of parents and of religious freedom. But on the other hand, it guarantees the physical inviolability of every person. The court felt that the boy’s right to inviolability trumped the religious and parental rights of his mother and father.
Holm Putzke, a law professor in Passau who wrote an essay on the topic in2008, says there would be no controversy if parents waited for their sons to come of age (14 years in religious matters) so that the young men could decide for themselves whether to be circumcised. But he adds that it is wrong to make an exception for involuntary male circumcision when female circumcision is seen as barbaric. And he maintains that arguments which lean on tradition alone are inadequate, for the same reason that tradition cannot, nowadays, justify polygamy or footbinding.
Muslim theology might, in theory, allow for some flexibility in the age of circumcision. The Jewish Torah, however, is inconveniently specific: God told Abraham to circumcise his heirs on the eighth day. That timing is non-negotiable, says Mr Graumann. He wants the German Bundestag to step in with a statute to clear up any doubts or anxieties.