Tempered Hope: German Court Edition

Like every other interested activist, I’m thrilled with the ruling from the District Court of Cologne.

Non-medical circumcision is a “serious and irreversible interference in the integrity of the human body,” the Cologne district court ruled.

This criminalises religious circumcisions performed by Jews and Muslims, the Financial Times Deutschland newspaper said on Tuesday. It says circumcision should be considered a crime of bodily harm.

Basically, yes. And non-therapeutic, non-ritual circumcision on healthy children, I hope. Surgically removing a healthy, normal body part constitutes physical harm. It can’t be much clearer than that. Non-therapeutic circumcision is a “serious and irreversible interference in the integrity of the human body”. There is no parental right to inflict such harm on a healthy child.

The various stories all quote some part of a statement by Professor Holm Putzke. They need to be pieced together to get his full statement, but the good bits I’ve read are here:

“This ruling has enormous significance for doctors,” said Professor Holm Putzke, an expert on law from Passau University in Germany. “For years there has been a call to ban circumcision for religious reasons. The court, as opposed to many politicians, was not afraid of criticism that its ruling was anti-Semitic or harmful to religion.”

Passau [sic – Putzke] further stated that the decision “may not only influence future rulings, but also bring about a change in the worldview of religious people regarding basic rights of children.”

And here:

Meanwhile, Holm Putzke, a professor of criminal law at the University of Passau who has argued for several years for a ban on involuntary circumcision, told JTA he hoped the ruling would spark discussion in Germany about “what should be given more weight – religious freedom or the right of children not to have their genitals mutilated.”

It’s not that complicated. There is no right to mutilate children within the individual right to religious freedom. The right to practice religion is not a right to practice it on another’s body with a permanent, harmful act.

As you can guess, I didn’t need 24 hours to understand that. I didn’t write about this yesterday because I wanted to think on it a bit, and to wait for a little more information to flow out because I can’t translate the source material. The court’s press release (pdf) is only in German, and Google Translate offers a bizarre counter-factual translation. Now that I’ve seen a little more, the key difference between what I know now and what was in the original trickle of information is that this decision is not binding. It’s a precedent in Germany, but it doesn’t immediately outlaw non-therapeutic genital cutting on minors in Germany. It will likely reach higher courts in Germany. This ruling is a victory, but it’s not time to spike the football in the endzone. There’s a long way to go, even in Germany. But it’s a brilliant start worth celebrating. We’ve long known that history will be on our side. This is further evidence.

Where I’d rather focus after the initial high is to suggest we all acknowledge and understand the implications for our efforts, particularly in the U.S. When the San Francisco ballot initiative began last year, that was a win. It became a minor setback for other reasons, but the initiative was correct. The text of the proposed legislation clearly identified the right and why it was generally applicable rather than an attack solely on religion as some inexcusably declared.

Still, the initiative had a flaw. The opportunity was specific to California and its ballot initiative option. It was worth pursuing (if there hadn’t been a controlling law on city versus state regulations already in place). It just shouldn’t have been in San Francisco. That was a tactical error. The city has a reputation outside of its boundaries that added unnecessary baggage to the effort. It allowed people uninterested in simple critical thought to suggest and accept that the initiative was on par with banning Happy Meals. The initiative involved liberty interests (i.e. individual bodily autonomy and genital integrity) that would’ve been helped by not being associated with unrelated silly endeavors.

So it is with this ruling. There’s more than just “we’re right!”. The case involved a Muslim family, which is being lost in many of the news reports and blogs reporting it. But the connection with and implications to Jewish ritual circumcision are obvious. If the ruling sticks and applies throughout Germany, it will affect both religions. That is legitimate. Again, circumcision inflicts physical harm, as the court found. Non-therapeutic reasons can’t excuse its imposition on children. That’s the rational extension of the finding. The elephant in the courtroom is the prohibition in Germany of an act associated with Judaism.

Ridiculous people will focus on this with hysterical hyperbole, but there are also reasonable people discussing it. It can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed. We should not feel ashamed or apologize for this unfortunate connection. It’s noteworthy but far too simplistic as an attack point. We should be cognizant of history and be responsible in how we talk about the ruling and its inevitable opponents within (and beyond) religious communities. History matters, but it can’t be an excuse to avoid the present. It can’t be a defense for uncritical thinking, for the wrong idea that non-therapeutic circumcision on a minor is an extension of a parent’s religious freedom. Religious freedom for parents and bodily integrity for children are consistent within the same civil law. We have the principles on our side. Let’s be intelligent about how we focus the discussion – and refocus it, if necessary – on rights and the future rather than solely on the past.

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