German Court Grabs Parents by the Foreskin

Oooh. A German court has ruled that not even deeply religious parents have the right to circumcise young boys on religious grounds, calling it “grievous bodily harm.”

The regional court in Cologne, western Germany, ruled that the ‘fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.’

‘The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised,’ the court added.

I’ve often said that if you reframed the circumcision debate so that it included any other body part – the tip of the nose, for instance, or the left earlobe, or the little fingers on both hands, or the big toes on both feet – we’d recoil in horror at the thought of it.

If we had no such practice as circumcision, and someone invented it today, the people practicing it would be shut down in a matter of days, and quickly imprisoned for … what? Torture, child abuse, practicing medicine without a license, who knows what else. And the rest of us would look on in approval.

Imagine taking your 2-year-old down for a butt-tattoo: “Grandma Loves Me!” Any parent giving permission for that procedure on a child would have ALL their children snatched out of their custody, just as a first step. And really, how is circumcision any different? Other than the fact that it’s genital mutilation, and that there’s something extra creepy in that?

Religion is not reason enough. Children are not born Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian. They’re born children, and all that other stuff is pounded into them later. It’s my view that parents are custodians of the education, health and safety of children, but that they do not own them. Not enough to order cosmetic surgery, anyway, and not for reasons that amount to, when you get right down to it, matters of social style.

‘The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision,’ the court said. ‘This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs.’

Not to mention that urinating on an open wound for days or weeks has to feel like having a blowtorch regularly applied to your hyper-sensitive newborn skin, however comfortably remote parents are from that realization … because the babies suffering it can’t tell them.

Holm Putzke, criminal law expert at the University of Passau, added something well worth saying:

Unlike many politicians, the court has not allowed itself to be scared off by charges of anti-Semitism or religious intolerance.

Hear, hear, well spoken Bruce.

Cue the predictable screams of outrage:

Within hours of the decision, Jews and Muslims – not just in Germany but from all over the world – banded together to protest what they saw as an assault on their religious freedom.

The New York-based Anti-Defamation League said circumcising newborn males was a “core religious rite of Judaism” and echoed a call by Germany’s Central Council of Jews demanding the Bundestag pass legislation protecting the religious practice.

“The decision by a district court in Cologne, Germany, to deem non-medical circumcision a crime places an intolerable burden on the free exercise of religion by Jews and also by Muslims who practice male circumcision as part of their religious faith,” Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said in a statement.

Foxman adds:

… a ban on circumcision would be a devastating blow to the future of the Jewish community.

I’m sure the various Muslim communities who practice female genital mutilation must feel the same way. Probably we should just let them do their thing, no matter how much it transgresses on the rights of the helpless girls.

A little side note from another site (emphasis added):

Recent studies published in leading medical journals have reported that circumcision has long lasting effects on the developing brain. Until recently, the myth was promulgated that infants’ nervous systems were not adequately developed to feel the pain of circumcision. The truth, with regard to the perception of pain, is that the nervous system of an infant is fully developed by the third trimester.

A recent study showed that more than 112 baby boys die each year as a result of having been circumcised, either on the table, or as a result of complications such as hemorrhage and infection attributable to the circumcision, like in this case. This is four times the number of boys killed in schoolyard shootings each year.

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  • Marcus Ranum

    If one wishes to claim “religious freedom” as an excuse for mutilating a child, where does it stop? Somehow I suspect that I couldn’t plead “religious freedom” if I ran around handing out beatings to the faithful. But it’d probably hurt them less and do less long-term damage than a circumcision.

    My only beef with the German decision is that it should have been strictly gender-neutral, and said that babies cannot give informed consent to elective body modifications, period. That would include tattoos, ear piercings, nose piercings, circumcision, etc.

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

      That was my feeling when I was carrying my daughter. When she was born my husband suggested that we could have her ears pierced when she went for her two month checkup. We talked and I explained that I did not feel comfortable putting holes in/altering my daughters body without her consent. We agreed to wait until she was old enough to request having her ears pierced herself. When she was eleven she really wanted to get them done and I was happy to take her.

      I just wasn’t comfortable with the ” Well, everyone has pierced ears”. YMMV

      If she had been a boy I would not have gotten my baby circumcised. Partly because of the idea of bodily autonomy and partly because of the risk of infection (it’s small but it’s real)

      Altering her body for health reasons is a different issue, immunizations carry a small risk but the risks from preventable diseases is higher so that’s a decision I made for her. Although not for much longer, and when I took her for her Gardasil shots we did talk about it first, the doctor gave her all the literature about possible side effects and she decided to get the shots.

  • rmw1982

    I know circumcision is not done routinely without some sort of religious excuse in Europe, but that is not the case in the US. Circumcision is a given, and many (most?) parents have no religious reasoning to do so. It’s become almost a cultural expectation that parents circumcise their newborn boys. It’s very strange and disturbing. We’ll (rightfully) yell about little girls being subjected to FGM, but will gladly turn our baby boys over to have their penises mutilated.

  • ambulocetacean

    “a ban on circumcision would be a devastating blow to the future of the Jewish community”

    Uh… that sounds a little bit like bullshit. But if those kids grow up and feel strongly about having their penises butchered for religious reasons they can always have it done as adults. It would be interesting to see what the take-up rate would be.

  • San Ban

    I applaud this ruling! One tiny baby step further towards reversing the privilege religion demands and has historically enjoyed.

    I have no illusions that this will be enforced, any more than the bans on FGM are enforced, but it just might change attitudes eventually.

  • Gregory in Seattle

    As I said elsewhere, the ruling does not quite go far enough. It needs to be established that parents are custodians of their children, not owners; and thus parents do not have a right to make permanent changes to a child’s body unless those changes are necessary for long-term health and safety.

    I love your example about tattoos, by the way: it is an excellent way to illustrate (so to speak) the issue.

  • Thorne

    I will join in the applause for this step taken by the German court. I would also think that they could have gone even further, by restricting other forms of body modifications inflicted on children by their seemingly well-meaning parents: ear piercings, tattoos, etc.

    I find it somewhat interesting that the same kinds of people who will try to deny a mother the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy will be outraged by someone denying them the right to mutilate their supposedly holy children. Not quite the same thing, of course, but along similar lines.

    I know when my boys were born, the pediatrician recommended circumcision for them, so we went along with it. Since I was also circumcised as a baby, though not for religious reasons, I saw no problem. What I’ve learned since makes me sad that we went along.

    • estraven

      Same with my husband and me. We actually tried to do the right thing: asked the pediatrician, read about it, etc. But we ended up doing the wrong thing. Today I can’t help but look at my younger self and think “How could I ever have thought that cutting off body parts is ever a good idea??!” I feel sick about it to this day.

      • lafranceprofonde

        My husband and I, and my son, were lucky! Our son was born while we were living in Spain and when we suggested to the Dr., out of pure cultural convention, that possibly the baby should be circumcised he asked “Is there a religious reason?” We replied that there was not so he said that in that case there was no other good reason for performing a circumcision. Today the mere fact that we even considered it makes me shudder and reflect on how pernicious religion is.

  • Happiestsadist

    I really like your point that if someone thought it up now in the absence of its existence, even the claims of religion wouldn’t stop them from getting rightfully arrested.

    Bodily integrity is a right children deserve to have.

    I’ve got some (received as an adult, fully consensual, very happy with them) genital-related body modifications nowhere near as permanent, invasive or extensive as that, and I’ll admit in the first couple of days after getting them, I found myself really having to think about if I wanted to pee that much. I can’t imagine what a poor infant, with no pain localization abilities or understanding must go through after that kind of extensive mutilation.

  • LeftSidePositive

    Firstly, the graphic on this post is just fucking horrifying.

    Second, for the circumcision issue I would be very firm in insisting 18-years-or-older policy, because a younger child may be likely to depend on his parents for housing/school/food, and as such the parents would have undue leverage for such an important decision.

    Third, for other body modifications I don’t feel so strongly about it–I think a 5-year-old can probably understand what ears are, what earrings do (not much, it turns out!), and that they’ll have to keep the same ones in for several weeks when they first get them, etc. Not to mention that if you don’t like having your ears pierced, you can generally just let them close back up. I’m a bit more wary of tattoos, but the same general principle applies.

    Fourth, your religious freedom applies to your penis and to your penis only. Your son’s penis is not, in fact, your penis. If you’re 18+ and of sound mind, and you want to chop part of your penis off, I wholeheartedly respect your right to do so, for religious reasons or otherwise.

    Fifth, have you noticed that no feminists have come on to this post demanding that we change the subject? (Some people have used FGM to inform & enhance their understanding, but not derail!) I wonder if that says something… In fact, some more explicitly feminist blogs than this one have also posted in favor of this ruling.

  • lorn

    The end result will be Germans vacationing in France to get their kids willie snipped. Sure, you can make a EU mandate, I figure that’s the next logical step, but long before that you are going to see back-alley circumcisions.

    You are welcome to argue your points and work on eliminating circumcision through use of language but making it a matter of law, and co-opting the states monopoly on the legitimate use of force, is going to cause a backlash.

    • dysomniak

      So how does mutilating the genitals of an infant rank to you, as far “use of force”? If stopping this isn’t a legitimate use of state power then for fuck’s sake what is? This sounds an awful lot like the “reasoning” we heard from a certain toxic little libertarian hobgoblin In the GOP primary debates regarding the civil rights act.

  • danielmchugh

    Gee, it sure would’ve been nice to have a ruling like that in the US… oh, about 26 years ago. /snark

    Even if large numbers of German parents do just go have it done somewhere else, at least some people who otherwise would have had their kids circumcised won’t go to the trouble. At least some of those kids will be afforded the chance to make up their own minds about their own bodies.

    There well may be an uptick in illegal surgeries as a consequence. If you go ahead and make childhood circumcision illegal, then some parents will be driven to break the law because they’re too brainwashed to put their kids’ interests ahead of their religion. It’s what religion does- but that does not mean that making the mutilation of newborns and young children illegal is the wrong thing to do. The answer cannot be to sit back and let another few hundred generations (and I think I’m being overly optimistic there) be affected while the religions that encourage the practice slo-o-o-o-o-wly fade away.

  • San Ban

    @lorn: How will a “backlash” be more harmful than turning a blind eye to the mutilation of children? By that logic, we ought not legislate protections of any sort, against any sort of harmful acts, but rather only “argue the point” and allow the injustice and harm to continue until everybody agrees it’s wrong and stops doing it. No matter how many generations, and how many lives and how much suffering of how many children this takes, you figure it’s better than bringing to bear the force of law.

  • feloniuspope

    Antisemitism? Really? These people do know that Christians get circumcised too, right!?

    • pris

      Not in Europe. Circumcision is almost exclusively practiced by Jews and Muslims. The only reason for circumcision is a medical problem, like phimosis.

      Routine circumcision of male children regardless of cultural background is an exclusively US phenomenon these days. The practice of routine circumcision for boys started around the same time in the US and in Britain. The idea was to reduce sensation in the penis to stop boys from masturbating. The practice died out in the 40ies (I think) in Britain. The US kept it up. The rest of the western world never did it.

      Outside of Israel and predominantly Muslim countries the US are the only country in the world that practices circumcision today.

      • lafranceprofonde

        Thank you for that background information which answers my wondering why my husband and I should ever have considered circumcising our son when there was no medical or religious reason for so doing. We are British, and both my husband, my father and my brother were circumcised and all born before the 40′s. Great to have such a succinct explanation!

      • FrederickRhodes

        Unfortunately, Amercan military medical influence spread the routine in countries like the Philipenes and Korea, may be a few more.

      • feloniuspope

        Thanks for the information! I guess that’s one more reason for Europeans to look down on America…

    • FrederickRhodes

      Christians who practice religious, ritual or routine infant prepuce excisions are actually going against the teaching of Christ, or anti-Christ.

    • Ysanne

      In Germany: No, hardly anyone is circumcised there.
      Even in the case of phimosis, doctors usually try to solve it conservatively by topical steroids (80%+ success rate, and there’s extensive research into that e.g. at the Uni of Regensburg), and and then by foreskin-preserving surgery techniques.

  • BecomingJulie

    This is an excellent ruling, and I admire the German courts for having the courage of their convictions; particularly in the light of whose knickers are the most likely to end up in a twist.

    Of course some people will be pissed off, but the rights of real people not to have their bodies mutilated when they are too young to understand must overrule any concern relating to imaginary deities.

    (Female genital mutilation was already illegal in Germany; and I believe they may also have age restrictions on body piercing and tattooing.)

  • niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

    pris, not only the USA but Canada had a default policy of male circumcision until very recently, too.

    This is a good start. The idea of mutilating any child for religious reasons revolts me and always did, even back when I was religious. When we were expecting our first child, I literally prayed that she would be a girl so that I would not have to face the fight with my husband over circumcision. He was determined that if we had a boy, he should be circumcised. I knew nobody who did not believe it was necessary and good to circumcise male babies, but somehow I just could not agree with them (though as a timid younger woman, I did not express these feelings openly). My child was a girl and I breahted a sigh of relief.

    By the time our first boy arrived (he was the third child), for some reason it was a non-issue! Between brand new parenthood and seasoned parenthood, both my spouse and I grew up a bit – I learned to speak up more and he thought more about the reality of a child’s experience. He did not even mention circumcision when our boy was born and the topic never came up again (we had two more boys – twins – who are also uncircumcised). We got some flak from older relatives, but we kind of smiled simply and refused to engage. Our boys have had no health issues contrary to the horrors we were told to expect because of our lax childcare approach – they are 20 and 16 now.

    When I read about this sort of thing I shake my head at my own sheer dumb luck. It wasn’t because of any deep philosophical belief in bodily integrity or any personal courage about going against the tide – I simply felt that there was no way I would ever subject my child to any unnecessary painful procedure or change the perfect little body he was born with.

  • FrederickRhodes

    If Germany had passed this law in the past, then the WW2Halocaust wouldn’t have taken place. Good for them protecting the right of their citizens in infancy from religious ritual sacrifices. Besides, the Covenant law of infant prepuce excision only aplies to the chozen race in their own promised land.

    • Ysanne


  • Hbart

    I wish I knew how to send the German lawmakers a letter of approval for this. Also, 112 deaths per year? What!

    • Alf

      Just to be clear it is not a law. This court ruling does not make a law forbidding circumcision, but ruled on a specific case.

  • sarina

    What disturbs me is there is no protest and laws prohibiting women from using alcohol and drugs in any quantity they choose causing severe damage to babies such as fetal alcohol syndrome. Where is the justice for the babies in these situations? As a social worker, I have seen countless children suffer neurological damage due to their mother’s using drugs/alcohol. Perhaps, we need to focus on these more pressuring issues and now succumb to feminist pressures.

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