Der Spiegel and the cutting question of circumcision

Der Spiegel and the cutting question of circumcision September 30, 2013

 The issue of circumcision has returned to Germany’s newspapers — and the manner in which the controversy is being discussed suggests that while the press is aware of the issues of personal autonomy generated by state intervention into the private sphere, the religious liberty (or perhaps the religious sensibility) issue is missing from the story.

The English-language section of Der Spiegel ran a news analysis story on 27 Sept 2013 entitled “Cutting Controversy: German Court Sets New Circumcision Rules”. It also ran a story in the German-language Panorama section entitled: “Kinder müssen vorher aufgeklärt werden” that reported a court in Hamm had ruled that parents and doctors must first discuss the procedure with a boy before he is circumcised.

The issue of circumcision of boys in Germany carries with it the baggage of the Nazi era and is fraught with social, cultural and religious issues. The issue attracted international prominence in 2012 when a Cologne court ruled that religious circumcision of boys constituted “bodily harm”. Der Spiegel noted that court held that as a matter of law:

a child’s right to self-determination superceded his parents’ right to freedom of religion. The decision prompted widespread uproar, particularly among Jewish and Muslim groups and as far away as Turkey, Israel and the United States. Germany’s Central Council of Jews called it “an unprecedented and dramatic intrusion on the right to self-determination of religious communities.” Ali Demir, the chairman of the Islamic Religious Community, argued that circumcision is a “harmless procedure, a tradition that is thousands of years old and highly symbolic.”

Ultimately, the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, passed a law allowing the religious procedure. According to the new rules, specially qualified members of religious communities can perform the operation in the first six months of a boy’s life, after which it must be performed by a physician.

Last week’s ruling clarified the new law.

According to the judges, the mother has an inherent right to decide whether to have the procedure performed as long as the child cannot make that decision himself. However, they also ruled that the parents and doctors are obliged to inform the child “in a manner appropriate to his age and development” about the procedure and be mindful of his wishes. In the case of the 6-year-old, this did not occur. Parents must also be informed about the procedure ahead of time.

The court ultimately found the 31-year-old mother’s justification for the procedure to be unsatisfactory. Since the family had Germany as its primary place of residence, visits to Kenya were rarely possible, and the child was baptized as a protestant. Moreover, they concluded, a procedure could cause psychological damage to the child, since the mother said she couldn’t accompany her son to the circumcision.

We hear the who, what, when and where, but not the why. There is a hint of it in the report the “child was baptized as a protestant.” (Why the small “p”? What does that signify?) But there is nothing more.

Last December I compared the coverage of the circumcision debate in the Bundestag by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and NBC. I wrote:

Turn to the NBC story written by Donald Snyder you can see the difference between adequate and great reporting. The article entitled “Circumcision to remain legal in Germany” provided the same political background and offering quotes from a number of MPs. It also addressed the religious freedom question from the perspective of Judaism and Islam. But in the same space as the New York Times it did a better job in conveying why this issue was important to supporters and opponents of circumcision.

While the Times noted the infrequency of circumcision in Germany, NBC took this angle further.

German society is highly secular. Religion is generally viewed as a relic from the past. This is especially true in what was formerly Communist East Germany, where atheism was the official doctrine for 44 years.

“The basic sentiment here is anti-religious,” said Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of Internationale Politik, a foreign policy journal published by the German Council of Foreign Affairs. “And Germans throw overboard anything that has to do with tradition.”

According to Tempel, the Cologne ruling was not a deliberate attack on Islam or Judaism but showed a total misunderstanding of how important circumcision is to both religions. TNS Emnid, a German polling organization, found in a July 2012 survey that 56 percent of Germans agree with the Cologne ruling.

Deirdre Berger, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, a Jewish advocacy organization, said that the Cologne ruling can be traced to a body of law and medical literature that has been accumulating over the past decade. This school of thought, based on little scientific evidence, holds that circumcision does irreversible physical damage and causes emotional trauma, a view held by the German Association of Pediatricians, which has called for a two-year moratorium on circumcisions. By contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization endorse circumcision for its medical benefits, particularly in fighting the spread of HIV in Africa.

What is missing from Der Spiegel‘s story is this background detail. The article is written from a German secularist perspective. This may not be such a very great crime as Der Spiegel is a German secular magazine — yet its story is incomplete, and insular. It lacks the self awareness found in quality journalism that acknowledges its own presuppositions, but also attempts to explain and engage other world views.

Perhaps it is too much to expect insight from a news story. But one should see balance — and that we do not see in this piece.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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14 responses to “Der Spiegel and the cutting question of circumcision”

    • Examine your premise. Science as interpreted by one group trumps all else. This is Germany we are talking about where science has been used in living memory to justify the extermination of peoples believed to be subhuman, to murder the aged, insane and crippled. Go a little further east and you have science used to justify the destruction of classes of people.

      • Go even further East and some people were put in psych hospitals because they didn’t believe in Communism. My shrink brother and his shrink wife saw it first hand in the 80s. Terrible mis-use of “scientism”.

        • Go even further east around the globe and you end up in the United States where “science” is misused to justify the American cultural norm of male infant circumcision. It seems that it’s all about perspective. But if we use common sense, we recognize that babies suffer during and after circumcision. It’s just not a good thing from a health perspective.

  1. What sort of journalistic “balance” would be warranted? Facts are facts.

    Circumcision alters sex dramatically. Hundreds of thousands of men are enduring non-surgical foreskin restoration. The only person with the ethical standing to consent to non-therapeutic circumcision is the rational informed adult owner of the genitals.

  2. Here is what the law says:
    Die am 28.12.2012 in Kraft getretene Vorschrift § 1631 d Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch – Beschneidung des männlichen Kindes – lautet wie folgt:

    (1) Die Personensorge umfasst auch das Recht, in eine medizinisch nicht erforderliche Beschneidung des nicht einsichts- und urteilsfähigen männlichen Kindes einzuwilligen, wenn diese nach den Regeln der ärztlichen Kunst
    durchgeführt werden soll. Dies gilt nicht, wenn durch die Beschneidung
    auch unter Berücksichtigung ihres Zwecks das Kindeswohl gefährdet wird.
    In den ersten sechs Monaten nach der Geburt des Kindes dürfen auch von
    einer Religionsgesellschaft dazu vorgesehene Personen Beschneidungen
    gemäß Absatz 1 durchführen, wenn sie dafür besonders ausgebildet und,
    ohne Arzt zu sein, für die Durchführung der Beschneidung vergleichbar
    befähigt sind.

  3. There are some intricacies among the facts:

    The parents of the boy are divorced and are suing each other, which is the reason why the court has to handle the case.
    It seems the mother has not religious reasons to have the circumcision performed, buth rather the cultural heritage of her native East Africa.
    The boy is baptized ‘evangelisch’, which in the area of that court usually means being baptized in a united mainline church of Lutheran/ and Reformed background.
    The mother wanted the operation of the 6 year old boy to be done, but she did not want to to be with him and comfort him during the procedure.

    So, such intricacies might render it impossible at all to draw any conclusion from this case to the principal discussion about religious circumcision.

  4. There is nothing “balanced” about trying to justify the genital mutilation of a child on religious or any other grounds.

    As to the highly flawed HIV “studies,” may I remind you that babies are not sexually active?

    There is a reason the Council of Europe has just declared the circumcision of boys a human rights violation, and the Children’s Ombudsmen from all five Nordic countries have just agreed to work towards a ban on the genital mutilation of male children in their countries.

  5. The article in “Der Spiegel” is actually very well balanced. It takes into account the cultural and social background of the mother and considers the fact that they travel rarely to Kenya. There was no compelling reason to circumcise the 6 year old boy. Human rights were put in front of parental religious (or cultural) freedom. Besides, neither the mother nor the child belong to a religion that requires circumcision. Thus there was no reason for “Der Spiegel” to engage in an in-depth discussion of how circumcision plays a role in certain religious groups.

  6. As long as humans believe in a blood thirsty god that needs appeasing with human sacrifice, we will continue to justify mutilation of infants (boys and girls) that is against the law in civilized societies.

  7. How can anyone think it is not ethically wrong to cut off are the MOST innervated parts of the HUMAN MALE and shut down a huge part of the kid’s/man’s sensory system. That can never be returned (it is shut down for good). If an adult (male or female) wants to cut off parts of their genitals, that is their right. However EVERY HUMAN (male and female) has the RIGHT (a human right) to reach adulthood with all of their tissue (particularly all of their erogenous tissue) that THEIR genetic code dictates.

    The parts of the penis that are cut off are some of the most highly innervated parts of the human. A whole range of sensation and sexual and protective function are lost. The lips, fingertips and nipples have similar touch sense. To take this away from another person without their consent is heinous. To do this to a newborn baby is creepy, child abuse and a human rights VIOLATION.