To Cut, Or Not To Cut

Male circumcision pits two fundamental rights against each other: bodily integrity, and freedom of religion. But don't look to the legislature for a solution: it will have to come from within Jewish and Muslim communities.

The doctors who appealed to the German government and parliament were right; we need more time to form an opinion on circumcision, for two main reasons: circumcised boys are more limited in the pleasure they can derive from sex, but a prohibition of circumcision would seriously impede the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religious practice.

From a medical perspective, the circumcision of all male offspring isn’t necessary. We don’t really gain anything from the practice, but we might sacrifice future sexual pleasure – a topic that has just started to gain media traction. This matters: potential psychological consequences are important as well, but the debate about sexual pleasure had thus far been limited to female genital mutilation. Few extended it to male circumcision, a practice that is widespread around the world – including Germany. After a recent court decision, we learned that Jewish and Islamic clerics are engaged in controversial debates about the justification of ritualistic circumcision in modern times.

When we examine freedom of religion more closely, we encounter a second challenge: the constitution protects not only the freedom to choose one’s religion but also the parental prerogative to educate and raise their children according to their religious beliefs and traditions. This clause has an individualistic and an institutional component: religious groups are autonomous from the state; they alone define who can become a member and who cannot. The rules they give themselves might include rites of initiation as well as final blessings for the deceased. For example, Islamic custom demands that the dead are wrapped in blankets – a practice which is usually prohibited by German cemetery regulations. In some fortunate cases, these regulations were changed. It makes sense to bury the dead according to religious custom, not according to municipal small print.