When a Cologne court correctly ruled last month that the circumcision of male children should be made illegal, its decision was condemned by religious organisations and the German chancellor Angela Merkel. None of these arguments succeed in trumping the two very simple facts of which the German court, in a culture of mainstream religious deference, bravely reminded us. The first is that circumcision constitutes an irreversible procedure tantamount to bodily harm given a lack of consent. The second, it is an attempt to determine the religious affiliation of a child before they are equipped to make such a decision.
As a religious practice, circumcision is not carried out as a matter of health. Its proponents, practitioners and many victims claim that belonging to a community is of the upmost importance to them. Shared history and cultural practices define what it is to be a part of a strong group and circumcision is one such practice.
If you think your foreskin, or lack thereof, is an essential part of belonging to a community of any kind, you are a fool. It is not relevant to any community worth being a part of what the precise state of your genitalia is or for how long your ancestors have been mutilating their offspring’s. It is certainly conceivable as the practice of some strange cult, but there are reasons why cults are generally condemned. Language, history, art, music and even benign rituals may contribute to the life of a true community. Do not place foreskins in the same category. The weight of historical tradition grants you no more right to violate a child in one peculiar way than it does in any other.
But what of the right to religious freedom? This certainly ought to be a value defended with vigour by the religious and non-religious alike. The suppression of one’s freedom of conscience and self-regarding actions is a terrible crime too often committed in the history of out species. I am afraid that right does not apply here to whom the religious seem to think it does.
The Cologne court knew very well that banning circumcision is not an affront to the right of the parents to mutilate their child’s genitalia for cultural reasons. It has reminded them, to their disdain, that they have no such right. The right to religious freedom applies to the child who has precisely no choice over the future of their foreskin. The actions of parents in these cases are little else but an attempt to brand a child and instill beliefs which it does not yet have and may not wish to share in later life. If Jews and Muslims were truly concerned about the right to religious freedom, they would not moan hysterically when told their practices are barbaric. If circumcision is still, weirdly, seen as important, it would take place in adolescent or adult life when the subject is able to fully consent to the procedure. Why is this not the norm? The answer, it strikes me, is simple. No adult wants to have their penis painfully altered with sharp objects. At least a baby can’t complain.
This ruling has added sensitivity because of the black history of Judaism in Germany. While we must never forget the Holocaust, we cannot let the evil of the past justify or prolong present and future wrongdoing. Despite this, the ruling is sure to be overturned, as Angela Merkel has vowed. Even so, we can take heart from the fact that, at least for a little while, reason prevailed in the Rhineland.