The Norwegian Centre Party has caused uproar in religious communities by proposing to outlaw the circumcision of young boys, unless medically necessary. This has happened after a two week old boy died after circumcision in May of this year in a medical institution. Jenny Klinge, Justice Policy Spokeswoman for the party, argues the prohibition on the following; 1) a comparison with female genital mutilation (FGM – circumcision of girls), and she claims approximately 100 boys die each year in the U.S. as a consequence, 2) she sees it as a ‘religious marker’ and, 3) she does not see it as a religious freedom matter since the boys cannot decide for themselves. I will argue that there is a good cause to discuss a prohibition, but not on the premises for the debate set by Centre Party. The legal analysis behind circumcision does deal with profound human rights issues such as religious freedom, discrimination of minorities and the parent’s right to decide for their children. Such a proposal must also consider health aspects and questions related to practical social solutions.
WHO estimates that 30% of the world’s male population is circumcised. Its practice mostly depends on religious belonging and/or culture. Jews have practiced circumcision for over 2000 years. They claim it was a commandment given to Abraham by God in the Torah and is considered a religious obligation for all Jewish men. Some estimates say 99% of all Jewish men are circumcised. A large majority of Muslims also circumcise boys, but it is not mandated by the Holy Quran. It was a pre-Islamic practice in Arabia, and Muslims consider this a ‘Sunnah’ (Prophet’s tradition) since Muhammad was circumcised. Several other cultures from Australia to Africa also practice it. Prohibiting circumcision will affect the cultural practices of these communities. They will resent it. It will be a measure that will affect them and not the religious practices of other religious groups.
Comparison with FGM
First I would like to distance the discussion from a comparison with FGM. Although the Centre Party are concerned about boys having a part of a healthy organ cut off from their body, the intervention is minor. It does not compare to FGM which is a much more serious intervention, where parts of or the entire external female genitalia is removed. This typically means that the clitoris is removed, in some cases together with the outer and/or inner labia and even tightening the vagina. It has a variety of negative health effects, especially due to the manner in which it is conducted. Furthermore it prevents these women from enjoying their sex lives as it makes it a very painful experience. This does not occur to boys who are circumcised. If argued on this premises, the discussion goes off track. Nonetheless, they are right in that it is, in most cases, an unnecessary and irreversible intervention into a healthy organ of a child which cannot protect itself or choose whether or not he wishes to go through with it, as well as inflicting a certain risk on the child.
There are health arguments in favour of circumcision. These claim that it reduces the risk of contracting HIV and that urinary tract infections are less common with circumcised men. Other experts claim that most of the pro-arguments have been disproven, contradicted or are too insignificant to justify the procedure. There isn’t a single medical association in the world that recommends the procedure.
At the heart of the debate lies the question of religious freedom and the child’s best interest. One of the most important international human rights instruments gives parents and legal guardians considerable rights to decide for their children when it comes to moral and religious education. It does however not touch upon the aspect of affecting the child’s body.
Art.18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states;
‘1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.’
It is clearly a matter of freedom of religion. Klinge argues that it is not, since ‘such freedom must involve being able to choose for themselves’. However, as we can see from the ICCPR Art.18(4), parents and legal guardians have the right ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their religion. This could provide an argument for parents who wish to circumcise their children, saying that it is part of their religious education, considering the religious mandate for it. FGM on the other hand is not commanded for by any religion.
The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child states the following in relation to religious rights in Art 14(2);
‘States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.’
If we are to discuss children’s right to choose freely then we must also prohibit baptisms and similar rituals and the wearing of religious clothing as well, albeit these do not intervene on the child’s physique. In none of these cases do children have a right to make an informed and free choice with respect to religion. Although I would accept that children should be allowed to think and choose religion freely, that principle would have to apply to all religions.
Practical social solutions
There is also the issue of offering a solid solution that protects individuals and their rights. Another problem with regards to the prohibition proposal is the practical aspect of it. Prohibitions tend to move whatever is being forbidden into the illegal sphere where it occurs under less predictable, unregulated and more dangerous circumstances. This happens with prostitution, drug abuse, alcohol prohibitions, etc. Would prohibition move circumcision into a clandestine environment where it was executed in a less sterile environment, by non-professionals, making it more dangerous? Considering the strong convictions about circumcision that exists, particularly in the Jewish and Muslim communities, is this improbable? Would it not make it a bigger problem instead of protecting young boys?
The reason alcohol prohibition did not work in the U.S. was that the black market was flooded by it. Instead of eliminating alcohol consumption, it was bought on the black market, without people really knowing what kind of liquid it consisted of, therefore it became more dangerous. The Norwegian government has experimented with needle rooms and distributed clean needles in order to provide a safer environment for consumption of heavy narcotics, without legalizing it. Prostitution in the Netherlands has been legalized in order to provide a safer environment for those who sell sex, and their customers, in order to prevent the spread of STD’s and violence.
A pragmatic solution is needed. Circumcision of young boys must be scrutinized further by experts. Religious communities must be consulted, together with health and legal practitioners. The right equilibrium must be found. Rights must be balanced. Personally I believe we should educate our children about religion objectively without making them predisposed to believing anything, but obviously I’m an atheist. I see no argument for the circumcision of healthy boys who cannot decide for themselves, but I do see problems with cutting of a piece of one’s healthy organ. On the other side I see the problems related to parent’s recognized right to educate their children from their beliefs, but the best interest of the child does come first. It seems Norway does not want to be the first country in the world to introduce prohibition, and will instead offer it at hospitals, perhaps for free, although both the doctors’ and nurses’ associations wanted to eliminate the practice.Reblog