Circumcision Controversies

A couple of weeks ago, Ron Colombo posted about a German regional court’s ruling that the circumcision of an infant boy,  requested by the boy’s parents for religious reasons, qualifies as a crime under German law. An English translation of the case is now available. A Muslim doctor circumcised a four-year old boy at the request of his parents, who wished to comply with Islamic law. German prosecutors charged the doctor with the crime of physically mistreating another person, but the trial court acquitted him. On appeal, the Cologne Regional Court held that, although the doctor was excused by reason of mistake, he had nonetheless committed a crime. Circumcision in these circumstances violates the child’s right to bodily integrity, the court held, and his right to decide for himself whether to be circumcised when he reaches adulthood. In the court’s words, “Circumcision for the purpose of religious upbringing constitutes a violation of physical integrity, and if it is actually necessary, it is at all events unreasonable.”

Although the court’s ruling obviously affects Muslims in Germany, it affects Jews as well, who, like Muslims, hold circumcision to be a religious obligation. Indeed, the Conference of European Rabbis has called an emergency meeting in Berlin this week to decide how to respond to the ruling. Meanwhile, religious circumcision is also causing a controversy here in New York. In a version of the circumcision ritual used by ultra-Orthodox Jews, the “metzitzah b’peh,” the person who performs the circumcision must suck the resulting blood from the infant’s circumcised penis. This action potentially exposes the infant to a fatal herpes infection — though some doctors discount the risk –and the New York City Board of Health has proposed a new regulation requiring that parents consent in writing before a metzizah b’peh is performed. A hearing on the proposed regulation will take place later this month.

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