Reading the Cologne Court’s Words

Since the recent ruling against non-therapeutic child circumcision by the Cologne district court, many have spoken out against it and claimed various and potentially extreme results that will flow from it. Some of these complaints are legitimate. As I previously wrote, there are issues offered by proponents of ritual child circumcision that deserve to be taken seriously. Asking people to let go of something they intensely value is asking them to bear costs, even if it should be clear that avoiding objective harm to the child must be stressed more. (That post is coming.)

Still, what I haven’t seen yet is the opposite view. I haven’t seen a single example of someone who supports legally-protected ritual child circumcision accurately acknowledge the court’s ruling as it was written, rather than using a selective reading, to defend the practice. (If someone has seen an example of a proper acknowledgement, please link it in the comments.) The closest I’ve seen comes from Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, but he only built and defeated a straw man. Near his conclusion, he wrote:

That is what the court in Cologne has done. It has declared that circumcision is an assault on the rights of the child since it is performed without his consent. It ignored the fact that if this is true, teaching children to speak German, sending them to school and vaccinating them against illness are all assaults against the rights of the child since they are done without consent. The court’s judgement was tendentious, foolish and has set a dangerous precedent.

The issue of consent is only part of the court’s ruling. The child’s lack of consent factored because of what was being done to him. The court evaluated the act first. From an English translation of the ruling, found here:

… since the parents’ right to religious upbringing of their children, when weighed against the right of the child to physical integrity and to self-determination, has no priority, and consequently their consent to the circumcision conflicts with the child’s best interests. …

Circumcision violates the child’s (right to) physical integrity. Consequently, parental consent conflicts with the child’s rights, including his right to consent or to refuse. Contrary to Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks’ statement, the court did not imply parenting is now illegal. It made the necessary distinction to limit the ruling to non-therapeutic child circumcision.

… There was consent by the parents, but this was not capable of justifying the commission of the elements of bodily harm.


… The parents’ fundamental rights under Article 4 (1), 6 (2) of the Basic Law (Grundgesetz, GG) in turn are limited by the fundamental right of the child to physical integrity and self-determination under Article 2 (1) and (2) sentence 1 GG. …

There are two rights involved. The right to physical integrity and the right to self-determination (i.e. consent). A complete attempt at a rebuttal requires acknowledging both.

An insufficient response such as that by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks is not unique. Consider:

Muslim leaders joined the Jewish groups in their condemnation of the ruling. Ali Demir, chairman of the Islamic Religious Community in Germany, described circumcision as “a harmless procedure that has thousands of years of tradition and a high symbolic value.

There are also Christian (and probably secular) advocates who mistakenly defend circumcision as a parental right based on, but not limited to, their religious freedom. However, they all ignore, minimize, or fail to understand that circumcision, like all surgery, is not physically harmless to the child.

As the court stated, “the child’s body is permanently and irreparably changed by the circumcision.” Harm and its link to consent are the issues. Circumcision¹ inflicts harm, despite the presumed good intentions of parents. Only the individual directly affected can evaluate whether or not this objective physical harm is good, bad, or neutral for himself, permanently. Only he can decide whether or not he consents to this intrusion on his physical integrity. That is what the court ruled, not the convenient straw men floating around as a defense against the equal rights of children.

¹ Here I refer only to ritual and non-ritual non-therapeutic circumcision. Proxy consent for therapeutic circumcision requires further analysis and can be justified, although it also inflicts harm.

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