We’ve been waiting all summer for this decision. On Thursday here in Berlin, the German Ethics Council ruled that male circumcision is legally permissible without a doctor’s order, but several conditions must be met:
- Both parents must be in full agreement.
- All possible risks to the procedure must be explained in full detail.
- Local anesthetics must be an option.
- The procedure must be certified by a medical professional.
Some of these requirements, especially the last two, go against what some fundamentalist religious leaders mandate. Why all the fuss? In Europe, where female genital cutting is illegal, male circumcision is only common in Muslim and Jewish communities. Last year, a German court in Cologne ruled that the circumcision of an underage male constitutes aggravated assault and battery, and the debate has been raging ever since. It has split the nation into two parties: Those that see the procedure as cosmetic at best and mutilating at worst, carried out on patients too young to give consent, versus those that believe any ban on age-old rituals and tribal markers constitutes religious and/or ethnic persecution. That the ritual German lawyers sought to ban is a Jewish custom makes it a particularly sensitive case here.
When we hear stories of female genital cutting in Africa, Westerners are generally horrified. But few in the United States understand that many Europeans gape at our 60% rate of male circumcision and consider it to be of course not quite but almost as cruel. “How on earth could parents do that to their baby boy?!” is the reaction I get from the vast majority of Christian and non-denominational European males I talk to. They are much more prone to believe studies citing the problems it can cause—for example, a supposedly higher rate of dyspareunia for women who have intercourse with circumcised men—than studies that downplay such fears. I usually admit to them that, because it is so very common where I come from, I’d never given it much thought beyond those pop culture jokes about what looks better.
Which just goes to show how powerful cultural customs and values can be. One culture cringes as the other shrugs. Both female and male genital cutting involves groups that say we should protect the parents’ right to choose what they think is best for their children without government interference, while the others say the government should protect children from procedures that offer no medical benefit before they are old enough to decide for themselves, regardless of what their parents want.
I’ve written before that as someone who’s undergone limb-lengthening, I know how complex decisions about body alteration can be. Determining an appropriate age of consent for surgery can be even more complicated. But also due to my experience, I wince along with Jessica Valenti when parents choose procedures for their children that offer no real medical benefit. While discussing circumcision, my European friends argue that patients should reach the age of consent before undergoing any procedure that, unlike limb-lengthening, does not become more medically complicated with age. Should courts ever rule this way, this will inevitably lead to bans on juvenile nose-jobs like the one Valenti cites. But then what about ear-piercing?
Years ago, I was a panelist at a conference called “Surgically Shaping Children” at the Hastings Center, a think tank for bio-ethics, where we addressed elective procedures such as limb-lengthening on dwarfs and determining a gender for intersex children. After a two-day debate and a resulting book, we concluded that the best way to prevent parents from making decisions that could be damaging to their children is to keep both the parents and their children as informed as possible about every issue that’s at stake: medical facts, cultural identity, individual identity, and agency. The German Ethics Council’s ruling also implies that such comprehensive understanding is necessary.
I think a ban on circumcision would have created more cultural resentment than understanding. But the scientific community, and society as a whole, should take the place of the legal system in helping parents understand all the complexities of altering a child’s body without a medical purpose. There may be no easy answer, but the discussion has got to keep on going.