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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Scottish voters don't want hard Brexit - and they have a say in the future too

Leaving the single market is predicted to cost Scottish workers £2,000 a year,

After months of dithering, delaying and little more than scribbled notes in Downing Street we now know what Theresa May’s vision for a hard Brexit looks like. It is the clearest sign yet of just how far the Tories are willing to go to ignore the democratic will of the people of Scotland.  
 
The Tories want to take Scotland out of the single market - a market eight times bigger than the UK’s alone - which will cost Scotland 80,000 jobs and cut wages by £2,000 a year, according to the Fraser of Allander Institute.
 
And losing our place in the single market will not only affect Scotland's jobs but future investment too.
 
For example, retaining membership of, and tariff-free access to, the single market is crucial to sustainability and growth in Scotland’s rural economy.  Reverting to World Trade Organisation terms would open sections of our agricultural sector, such as cattle and sheep, up to significant risk. This is because we produce at prices above the world market price but are protected by the EU customs area.
 
The SNP raised the future of Scotland’s rural economy in the House of Commons yesterday as part of our Opposition Day Debate - not opposition for opposition’s sake, as the Prime Minister might say, but holding the UK Government to account on behalf of people living in Scotland.
 
The Prime Minister promised to share the UK Government’s Brexit proposals with Parliament so that MPs would have an opportunity to examine and debate them. But apparently we are to make do with reading about her 12-point plan in the national press.  This is unacceptable. Theresa May must ensure MPs have sufficient time to properly scrutinise these proposals.
 
It is welcome that Parliament will have a vote on the final Brexit dea,l but the Prime Minister has failed to provide clarity on how the voices of the devolved administrations will be represented in that vote.  To deny the elected representatives of the devolved nations a vote on the proposals, while giving one to the hundreds of unelected Lords and Ladies, highlights even further the democratic deficit Scotland faces at Westminster.  
 
The Scottish government is the only government to the UK to publish a comprehensive plan to keep Scotland in the single market - even if the rest of the UK leaves.
 
While the Prime Minister said she is willing to cooperate with devolved administrations, if she is arbitrarily ruling out membership of the single market, she is ignoring a key Scottish government priority.  Hardly the respect you might expect Scotland as an “equal partner” to receive. 
 
Scotland did not vote for these proposals - the UK government is playing to the tune of the hard-right of the Tory party, and it is no surprise to see that yesterday’s speech has delighted those on the far-right.
 
If the Tories insist on imposing a hard Brexit and refuse to listen to Scotland’s clear wishes, then the people of Scotland have the right to consider what sort of future they want.
 
SNP MPs will ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard at Westminster and do everything in our power to ensure that Scotland is protected from the Tory hard Brexit. 

 

Angus Robertson is the SNP MP for Moray, the SNP depute leader and Westminster group leader.