Circumcision could be banned
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In a move triggering one of the gravest threats to European Jewry since the infamous Nuremberg laws, the Council of Europe’s parliament voted last month for countries, including the UK, to “take legislative and policy measures that help reinforce child protection” in cases where young boys are circumcised for religious reasons.
Endorsing a report by the Social Affairs and Health Committee, the Parliamentary Assembly voted to restrict religious circumcision performed by non-medical practitioners and initiate a debate on whether male circumcision should be prohibited until a boy reaches the age of consent.
The problem, according to the report, is that “circumcision applied to young boys is clearly a human-rights violation against children,” since it irreversibly changes the bodily form at a time when the child is unable to give full and informed consent.
Since there is no medical justification for routine neonatal circumcision, the procedure is said to violate a child’s right to physical integrity.
The report also expresses concern about circumcisions performed by non-medical practitioners in a non-sterile environment such as a private home or “a religious edifice”, presumably a synagogue.
A footnote asserts: “There is clear evidence of regular deaths amongst new-born boys due to infectious diseases (for example, herpes) transmitted by rabbis or mohels (the traditional Jewish circumcisers)”.
The report disparages the arguments that male circumcision is an integral and indispensable part of religious ritual, which, for thousands of years, has not harmed a child’s health; and that it is in the child’s best interests to be brought up in accordance with the fundamental tenets of his faith.
The rapporteur comments that “as a children’s-rights activist, these are arguments purely serving the adults who wish to avoid a confrontation with the ‘dark side’ of their own religion, traditions and, finally, identity”.
The report and resolution are regarded as highly influential in Europe. Children’s ombudsmen from five Nordic countries have already agreed to work with their national governments to achieve a ban on non-therapeutic circumcision of under-age boys. If the issue comes before the European Court of Human Rights, the report and resolution will be taken into account in the Court’s deliberations.
In Israel, however, these developments have been met with fury. The Foreign Ministry described the report and resolution as “appalling ignorance at best, or defamation and anti-religious hatred at worst, and “casting a moral stain on the Council of Europe”.
Whether antisemitic or not, the report is unhappily worded. The report links male circumcision with other “particularly worrisome” violations such as female genital mutilation. This trivialises the harm caused by female genital mutilation as much as it demeans the benefits of faith and religious practice.
The report fails to consider Article 5(1) of the United Nations Declaration against Religious Discrimination (1981) which guarantees parents the right to organise the life within the family “in accordance with their religion or belief”.
When discussing the time-honoured justification for male circumcision, the report refers to supporters who “tend to present [the practice] as beneficial to the children themselves despite evidently negative life-long consequences”.
The report records that “many Jews circumcise their sons with great emotional conflict, reluctance, and regret”. Seeking to rewrite fundamental tenets of Jewish practice, the report notes that “male circumcision should… be strongly questioned today, both in the medical and the religious context”.
Alarmingly, there is a subtle change between the report’s draft resolution and the final version approved by the Parliamentary Assembly. The report recognised that there needs to be a public debate concerning the balance struck between the rights and best interests of the child and the rights and religious freedoms of parents and families.
But, in a breathtaking amendment, the Parliamentary Assembly deleted the reference to striking a balance — because when it comes to the rights and best interests of children, apparently there is no balance to strike.
If the value of ancient religious practice is diminished to such a degree in the rhetoric of human-rights theology, it is only a matter of time before circumcision of Jewish boys is banned across Europe.
Jonathan Fisher QC was a member of the Government’s Commission on a Bill of Rights 2011-12