The German court ruling involves many issues, so I expect it to be an ongoing source for posts for the foreseeable future. I’m building my thoughts on the opposition, which is a complex issue. For this post, though, there are a few comments worth mentioning. The full article contains many quotes based on faulty logic, but this commentÂ¹ encapsulates the problem with balancing parental religious freedom with a child’s right to be free from harm:
The Evangelical Church’s Hans Ulrich Anke said: “Religious freedom and parents’ right to choose how to educate their children have not been weighed against the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity”.
Parents donâ€™t have the right to educate their children with the blade of a scalpel. This is as true about male circumcision as it is for any other surgery, including religiously-argued female genital cutting. The right to be free from obvious, objective harm without one’s consent is not a right that begins upon reaching a society’s arbitrary age of majority. It’s especially fallacious to imagine that this right doesn’t exist from birth for male minors only, as laws against non-therapeutic female genital cutting imply. The fact that male circumcision is proscribed in religious texts demonstrates nothing about the legitimacy of its imposition on a healthy, non-consenting child in a civil society. There are many religious dictates that we do not allow under this expansive view of religious freedom because the actions violate the rights of others. A balancing test is necessary. Where there is a conflict, religion must change, not our protection of the rights of all citizens, equally.
This post by Iain Brassington at the Journal of Medical Ethics blog deftly addresses this conflict for what it is. (Mr. Brassington cites this news story.)
The president of Germanyâ€™s Central Council of Jews, Dieter Graumann, called it â€œan unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determinationâ€.
Thatâ€™s telling. The rights of the child give way to the right of a community to cut him. Can communities have rights anyway? Iâ€™m not at all sure. If they can, and if self-determination is one of them, does that always have to come out trumps? Again, Iâ€™m not at all sure. Itâ€™s strange to see rights-talk brought to the table in defence of unconsented, irreversible, and non-therapeutic body modification. If a boy decides that itâ€™s important to get himself circumcised later in life, then thatâ€™s a different matter entirely: good for him. But without any choice? I may have missed something, but I donâ€™t understand how the claim is supposed to work. Can anyone help out?
Mr. Brassington succinctly identifies the conflict. The argument is for community “rights” at the expense of individual rights. Effectively, children are property. I suspect critics of protecting a male child’s right to bodily integrity expect opponents to retreat on the basis of some form of fallacy to render reconsideration of existing norms unjustified and offensive. Unfortunately, but with reason for optimism, this is part of the path to achieving full protection of bodily integrity for all individuals.
Â¹ It’s possible to read that in a different context from the rest of the article. That subtlety may be what he meant, which would rather likely side closer to my view than with the other comments in the article. I will consider it in the context of the rest of the article, as criticism of the court and an attempt to support non-therapeutic child circumcision as a parental religious right.