These days the news are filled with stories of various laws, bills, and practices brought before the Courts system. It must be difficult to be a judge, to sit in a position of logic when so many of the arguments brought forth are ones of emotion. And when it may at first appear that the Courts overstep their boundaries, the reaction can be explosive.
In Germany, a curious ruling was made by a Cologne court: German Ruling Against Circumcising Boys Draws Criticism. Of course Jews and Muslims are up in arms over this, believing the court overstepped its jurisdiction and invaded religious space. The court basically ruled (paraphrased) that the child has the fundamental right to bodily integrity and must be able to consent to the procedure if it's not done for medically indicated reasons. It sounds logical enough.
Now the vast majority of circumcisions are done in infancy or early childhood, when the child cannot of course consent. By Jewish tradition it happens on the 8th day of life. Muslim tradition, as I understand it, varies a bit - it could be in infancy or all the way in adolescence (when the child would be able to consent).
So the argument come back, does the child's fundamental right to bodily integrity trump the parents' rights to parent? To dictate the child's religion? This is a gray zone, to be sure, and I'm not sure why male circumcision gets such a pass (from a logical standpoint). Courts have ruled previously that a parent may not tattoo their child. Courts have ruled that female circumcision (aka female genital cutting/mutilation or FGM) is illegal. Are those necessarily drastically different? Tattooing inflicts a permanent mark on the child, but doesn't remove any part of his/her body. Female circumcision exists on a spectrum - the most "benign" being a simple prick to draw blood from the clitoral hood (or removal of the clitoral hood) to practices way more extreme.
One medical body considered allowing physicians to perform the most benign on the FGM spectrum (pricking the clitoral hood to draw a few drops of blood, symbolically of female circumcision) to assuage parents who come from a culture that practices that, and to ensure they don't take their baby girls to a practitioner who'd do something way more extreme. That consideration was met with a furious backlash and promptly retracted. But we're allowed to do more than that to baby boys. I mean, really now?
For the purposes of this post I'm ignoring the potential medical benefits/risks of male circumcision because the research on that waffles all the time, and whatever potential medical benefits that may be gained are easily achieved with other means (e.g. using a condom, good hygiene, etc). But these procedures, because they are surgical in nature, do come with very real risks. In an old Jewish tradition (fortunately not practiced by most - I think - Jews these days), the mohel sucks the blood away from the circumcision wound with his mouth. This is obviously not sanitary and is against all medical standards. How 11 New York City Babies Contracted Herpes Through Circumcision. That's one of the complications of that particular practice. Now in normal healthy older children and adults, herpes is annoying but nothing more really. In babies, because their immune systems are next to none, a herpes infection can be deadly.
And when public health officials try to intervene to limit/stop these practices, religious backlash is again furious as they claim they can self-regulate. Clearly not always. Circumcision, as my ob/gyn attending once said, has a "narrow therapeutic window." It's not a difficult procedure to perform, but when you mess up, you mess up big time and you can destroy that kid's life. That's not a burden I'd like to carry.
If at this point you may think I'm bashing religion, I assure you I'm not. But when a religion requires modification to a person's body, particularly to a person who cannot consent, there are at least standards that must be met. I'm in full support of medical/public health/legal bodies regulating such practices to ensure minimal harm. The Cologne court in Germany may have gone too far, but the issue they bring up is valid: does the parents' rights trump the child's right to bodily integrity? What if the child grew up and wish he (or she) wasn't circumcised? What consolation is there then?
On my ob/gyn rotation I met a young first-time mother who asked me, as she was in the last stages of labor, whether her son would get circumcised right after birth. I tried my best to mask my shock. I said that the baby must first be observed for at least 12+ hours to ensure he's healthy enough. I told her if she wished it to be done, it'd happen the following morning. She asked me again if it'd be done right after he was born. I reiterated myself. Her friend suggested she could just leave him uncircumcised, that there's nothing wrong with that - I agreed and said most of the world's men are uncircumcised and the vast majority of them have no health problems because of it. She considered this for a full 3 seconds before asking me that question again. I changed the topic, exchanged some polite words, and left. This mother, in my opinion, shouldn't have had the right to make that snap decision for her son without full consideration of the potential risks/benefits.
Thoughts? Should logic rule over emotion and tradition? Did that German court go too far, or simply conform to laws regarding other somewhat similar practices? Whose rights should respected first?
Here's one last article, food for thought: Circumcision's Deadly Fault Line: Rationality vs. the Metzitzah B'Peh.