- The Danish parliament will discuss a proposed ban on circumcision for people under the age of 18.
- Such a ban would impose on the right to freedom of religion.
- Jewish and Islamic communities have found themselves on the same side of the issue, battling a secular culture that seeks to prevent them from practicing their religion.
On Friday, a petition arguing for a ban on circumcision for all children under the age of 18 crossed a 50,000-signature threshold in Denmark. That means the Danish parliament is required to debate and vote on the issue.
Proponents of male circumcision bans have historically compared male circumcision to female genital mutilation, arguing that the two should be treated similarly. But the comparison is facile.
The former is painful for years beyond the day it takes place; male circumcision is not. Female genital mutilation is done with the goal of limiting or destroying female sexual desire; male circumcision has nothing to do with controlling arousal or desire.
And female genital mutilation has no proven health benefits and, in fact, has been shown to have negative health consequences; male circumcision decreases the risk of penile cancer, sexually transmitted infections, and urinary tract infections. The World Health Organisation has found that circumcision reduces the risk of HIV by 60% for heterosexual men.
Proponents also argue that circumcision fundamentally violates the rights of the child, who should be able to choose for themselves whether or not they want to be circumcised. This argument, too, is flawed. Children are dependent for many years of their lives, during which time thousands of decisions get made for them. For much of their lives, parents decide what and when their children eat, how they dress, where they go, and much more.
The government does not step in to mandate how parents raise their children unless there is concern that the parents are abusive. One urologist I spoke with raised an interesting point: There is hardly a mass movement to ban parents from piercing their children’s ears even though unlike circumcision, ear piercing has no health benefits or religious significance. Like circumcision, it involves temporary, short-lived pain.
The call to ban circumcision on the basis of the rights of children also has fascinating implications for conversations regarding abortion. Why should the rights of a week-old baby to choose whether or not to keep a foreskin outweigh the right of a three-month-old child to life?
Equally fascinating are alliances formed as a result of proposed circumcision bans, along with other issues that have recently threatened the right of religious freedom in Europe. Jews and Muslims have found themselves on the same side of the issue, battling a secular culture that threatens their rights to practice their religion.
I spoke with Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. He told me that there was cooperation between the Jewish and Islamic communities when this issue arose in Germany in 2012.
In Denmark now, the Jewish community “has been in close contact with the Muslim community,” he said. Regarding the likelihood that a ban would pass in Denmark, or in Iceland, where this issue has also recently come up, Baker said that “there is no real expectation that this legislation will pass.”
But, he cautioned, “this doesn’t mean that the issue itself will go away.” In fact, he said, “we will see additional efforts to impose restrictions if not a ban altogether in various countries.”
Though most issues that involve trampling on the rights of religious freedom are problematic for all the obvious reasons, banning ritual circumcision is an especially egregious attack. For Jews and Muslims, circumcision is one of the religious markers that demonstrates that the circumcised is part of the group. It is fundamental to religious identity.
At the core of this conversation lies a question of judgment – and of reasonable limits. But when danger to an individual is not a concern, politicians should leave parenting to the parents, and the expression of religious freedom to the religious.
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