Brit milah and religious health

If it wasn't so serious, the decision of the district court in Cologne to brand circumcision a criminal act would be almost humorous.

The court had before it the case of a Muslim couple who had taken their four-year-old son to hospital following his circumcision. As it turned out, the lad was in good health, but this did not prevent some hospital busybody informing the police. A prosecution followed of the doctor who had carried out the procedure. Although he was acquitted, the court held that circumcision was likely to be a criminal act, and was only legally defensible if it was medically required. Mere religious prescription - the court held - was not sufficient.

No sooner had the verdict been announced than the aptly named Professor Putzke, who teaches criminal law at the University of Passau, weighed into the debate. "I can understand (he is reported to have said) that the first reaction of Jews and Muslims might be that their religious freedoms were being threatened. But perhaps this is a first step to a debate… about what should be given more weight - religious freedom or the right of children not to have their genitals mutilated."

Well, I'm all for a public discussion. But, if we are going to have a debate, let's base it on the evidence, not on any misrepresented statement of human rights or perverted view of parental obligations.

Of course a child has rights — but so does a parent

I have from time to time debated with anti-circumcisers. An argument that they frequently trot out is (and obviously I'm talking here only of Jewish male circumcision - brit milah) is that a religion that requires its male children to be circumcised for doctrinal reasons, and without any thought for their own wishes, is oppressive, brutal and (not to put too fine a point upon it) in defiance of basic human rights.

Did I - I have been asked - inquire of my very young son whether he wished to be circumcised? Of course I didn't. But then I didn't ask him whether he wished to be immunised against diphtheria, or against poliomyelitis, rubella, mumps, measles and so on. If brit milah is criminally invasive, then surely so are these and other routine but intrusive - and irreversible - childhood procedures.

And before some clever dick responds that these inoculations are medically required, let me assure you that they are not. They may of course be medically desirable, but that is not the same thing at all. They could only be medically required if the state mandated them. And it does not - neither in the UK nor in Germany. My wife Marion and I could easily have dispensed with a variety of inoculations for our children and argued that, when each of them turned 18, they would have to decide for themselves whether they wished to be protected against various killer (or at least extremely unpleasant) diseases. We did not. We had our children immunised for the sake of their physical health. And we authorised a brit milah for our son for the sake of his religious health.

The decision was entirely ours. Here we surely come to the nub of the argument. Of course a child has rights - even the unborn child. But so does a parent. Of course a child must be protected by the state against palpable abuse, gratuitous violence and wilful neglect. But extreme cases have always made bad law. The primary welfare of a babe in arms and of the toddler at one's side is the responsibility of the parents.

It is primarily the responsibility of the parents to teach right from wrong and good from evil. We can probably all agree that, in too many cases, these responsibilities are not taken seriously enough and that bad parenting leads to a broken society.

We can doubtless also agree that the state has a duty to step in where the parenting is sub-standard or non-existent. This may of course involve supervision of the parents or even the removal of the child from parental control. But such actions are a last resort.

I do not know whether the Cologne court was motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice in suggesting that circumcision might be a criminal act. But its judgment has certainly presented German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a problem arguably more sensitive than the future of the Euro. The Cologne decision is not binding on higher courts. Be that as it may, it will have to be reversed.

Last updated: 12:16pm, July 5 2012