Circumcision is not a barrier to an individual's religious freedom

Was a German court justified in interfering with centuries of religious tradition?

A court in Cologne has ruled that circumcision, performed for religious reasons on male children below an age where they can meaningfully consent to the operation, amounts to an unwarranted and irreparable interference with their bodily integrity. Furthermore, it interferes with the right of a child "to decide for himself later on to what religion he wishes to belong".

The ruling, in a case involving a four-year-old Muslim boy who was injured in a botched procedure, has been strongly criticised by both Muslim and Jewish groups in Germany and beyond. In the UK Jonathan Arkush, vice-president of the Board of Deputies described it as "intolerant, ill-informed and deeply troubling."  Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, by contrast, supports it. He thinks it is "an open and shut case, ethically speaking" on the grounds that "respect for the autonomy of a person requires that they give consent for irreversible procedures affecting their body like cutting pieces off their genitals". And Pavan Dhaliwal, speaking publicly on behalf of the BHA, suggests that a ban on infant circumcision "would not constitute an attack on religious freedom, because boys would still be allowed to be circumcised when they reach an age to consent".

While Copson has some sympathy for Jews and Muslims who may interpret a ban as oppressive, he appears to locate the source of their discomfort in an emotional attachment to their traditions and, in the case of men, intimate feelings towards their own bodies. But this is more than a merely cultural or psychological issue. It would have especially serious consequences for Jewish religious practice. To ban the circumcision of infant boys would, in effect, be to ban Judaism itself, at least as it has been practised for almost three thousand years. Islam expects males to be circumcised but lays down no specific age for the procedure. Jewish law on the other hand requires circumcision on the eighth day after birth, an age at which even the most precocious infant would be unable to give informed consent. No uncircumcised boy would be able to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah at the traditional age of thirteen. It would be potentially catastrophic. That a German court should have produced such a ruling has only added to the disquiet. 

Along with the Sabbath and the rules of kosher, circumcision has always been one of the non-negotiable features of Judaism, indeed central to Jewish identity. The requirement is laid down in the book of Genesis (in chapter 17), which describes circumcision as the "token of the covenant" between God and Israel and goes on to warn that that "the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised shall be cut off from the people; he has broken my covenant." 

The importance attached to the procedure is repeatedly stressed in the Hebrew Bible. In one incident recounted in Exodus, God threatens to kill Moses, apparently because the prophet's (non-Jewish) wife has not had their son circumcised. He is only saved when Zipporah takes the knife to her son's foreskin herself. The message is clear: so much does God care about circumcision that's he's prepared to kill the man without whom there would be no Judaism (nor any Christianity or Islam) at all rather than see one Israelite child in possession of a foreskin. It's that serious.

If circumcision were obviously a bad thing, then religious freedom could and should be overridden. No religious justification would suffice to permit human sacrifice, or indeed female genital mutilation (FGM), which most Western countries have specifically banned. But male circumcision is not obviously harmful, as FGM is. Performed properly, it is not dangerous. The World Health Organisation positively encourages it, the theory being that it protects against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. The effect on sexual pleasure in later life is disputed. Men who are in a position to know offer differing opinions, with those who report improvement somewhat outnumbering those regretting the procedure. All agree, however, that even with anaesthetic during the operation it is very painful afterwards and it takes at least a month to recover.

This matters. If circumcision for religious reasons is restricted to adults, not only would this interfere with long-held custom (and in the Jewish case, Biblical law), it would also force men or older boys to undergo a painful procedure as a price of belonging to their ancestral religion. Uncircumcised male converts to Judaism or Islam already face this dilemma, of course, but it's not hard to see that the prospect would act as a deterrent to many men lacking in the zeal of a convert. At the same time, a circumcised man leaving the religion is not forced to be painfully uncircumcised. It's thus hard to follow the logic that sees the procedure as an interference with a boy's freedom to choose his religion later in life. Quite the reverse.

 

A young boy cries after being circumcised. Photograph: Getty Images
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Our trade unions are doing more for women than ever before

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women.

Reading Carole Easton’s article on women and unions was puzzling and disappointing in equal measure. Puzzling because it paints a picture of trade unions which bears little resemblance to the movement I know and love. Disappointing because it presents a false image of trade unions to women readers just at a time when women need strong trade unions more than ever.

While it is right to say that too little progress has been made in closing the gender pay gap or tackling the scourge of zero hour contracts, it is wrong to suggest that trade unions have been twiddling their thumbs.

Like our friends at the Young Women’s Trust, equality is at the heart of what unions do. This work isn’t measured in the number of high-profile women we have at the forefront of our movement – although we’re not doing too badly there, as anyone will attest who has seen Frances O’Grady, the first female general secretary of the TUC, speaking out for ordinary women workers.  

Trade unions contribute to equality for our 3 million women members every day. For us, that’s about the thousands of workplace reps supporting individual women facing discrimination or harassment. It’s about health and safety reps negotiating for protective clothing and better workplace policies on the menopause, terminal illness and many more issues. Our work is unions taking employment tribunal cases on behalf of women who could never afford the tribunal fees without us. And always, at the heart of everything, our work is about the collective power of workers joining together to bargain for fair pay and decent work.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of unions not just “noisily fighting for”, but actually winning better pay, terms and conditions for women. Several unions have successfully organised cleaners, supported them to take strike action for better pay, and won. The RMT is just one example of many. Unite is busy organising London’s low-paid and often exploited hotel workers. Unison organises teaching assistants, fights for better pay and conditions, and even runs a Skills for Schools project to help TAs develop in their careers. Unison and the National Union of Teachers – both unions with over 75% female membership – organise childcare workers and fight not just for better pay but also for training and development opportunities. Over in the retail sector, Usdaw and GMB are fighting the good fight for their women members in supermarkets and shops, not just on pay but on pensions, health and safety, carers’ leave and protection from violence at work.

Women have much to gain from trade union membership. Male union members are paid 7.8 per cent more than men who aren’t in a union – but women union members are paid 30 per cent more than non-members. A recent EHRC report on pregnancy discrimination found that employers who recognised unions were less likely to discriminate against their pregnant employees.

Yes, it’s true that too few young women are union members. This summer, the TUC and our member unions will launch a new organising and campaigning effort to spread the benefits of union membership and attract a new generation of women (and men).

But starting new women-only unions is no form of progress. That’s where we started out over 100 years ago. Now women workers are at the heart of all our unions, across all sectors. Women’s concerns at work are trade union concerns. And every day we make practical progress towards women’s equality at work through patient representation and negotiation and active campaigning to challenge bad bosses. Young Women’s Trust should work with us to get more women the benefit of union membership.  

Scarlet Harris is women's equality policy officer at the TUC