The on-going debate over circumcision reignited last month when a court in Cologne, Germany, ruled that circumcising infant boys without urgent medical need amounts to a criminal act of "irreparable bodily harm" punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison, even if parents consent to the procedure—and even when circumcision is performed for religious reasons.
The ruling was based on the circumcision of a 4-year-old Muslim boy that resulted in medical complications and the need for hospitalization, ABC News reports. Though circumcision is a Muslim religious custom, and the boy's parents agreed for him to be circumcised, the court ruled that the welfare of the child outweighs the religious rights of the parents.
As Marilyn Wallace, RN, executive director of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, explains to BabyZone, the German court ruling is viewed by many on the anti-circumcision side as an important step toward recognizing the human rights of the very young. "As the court said, a child's right to his own body trumps the religious rights of his parents. Years ago, child labor laws were put into place, when certain rights of children were recognized. This ruling is a step toward honoring the genital autonomy rights of children. Let the boy decide when he comes of age what body parts he does and does not want or what religion is right for him."
But isn't freedom of religion another basic human right? Jewish families are required to circumcise baby boys on the eighth day after birth in a ceremony seen as their entrance into a covenant with God. Muslims usually perform the procedure early in a boy's life, too, but sometimes wait until later in childhood. What about the right of parents to follow the basic tenants of their faith?
The reaction to the court case, especially from Jewish and Muslim groups, has been so vocal that Germany's lower house of parliament soon after approved a measure that called for a law explicitly permitting the circumcision of boys, as long the procedure avoids "unnecessary pain." If passed, this new law will override the court ruling.
"The resolution shows that we live in a cosmopolitan and tolerant country. It would be inexplicable ... if Jewish citizens in Germany were not allowed to circumcise their boys," Reuters reports Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle as saying.
What about circumcision in the US? According to the latest available statistics from the Centers from Disease Control, circumcision rates among American baby boys are on the decline, dipping to 32.5 percent in 2009 from 56 percent in 2006. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend routine circumcision, though the organization stays mum on circumcision for religious reasons. However, anti-circumcision groups in the US are working hard to ban the practice. In San Francisco last year, a ballot item, if passed, would have made performing circumcision a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1000 or up to one year in jail, and offered no exemption for religious ritual. Before it could be voted on, the California Supreme Court struck it down due to a state election law violation (health issues can't be put up for a vote).
So where does all this leave parents? Whether or not you circumcise your child is a very personal decision, but one that requires the answer to some pretty fundamental questions: Who's choice is it? What does it mean for infant boys to have this decision made for them, when they might have chosen differently? Does religion trump human rights? Or do human rights trump religion?
Do you plan on circumcising your child—or will you leave him intact? What's the driving force behind your decision?