Thousands of boys are circumcised for religious reasons each year in Germany. (American-style routine newborn circumcision to prevent phimosis and discourage masturbation is regarded as highly unethical and is rarely performed, meaning that virtually all ethnic Germans are genitally intact.) Lawsuits against mohels, Muslim circumcisers, and pediatricians have been mounting for decades, but so far lawyers have argued that the legal situation in this country is too uncertain for a clear policy to arise. With this new decision, the operation’s status is now becoming clearer. It is likely that further state courts will began handling cases, and a decision by the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is likely in the foreseeable future.
A Turkish boy receives his sunnet in a clinic
The present case arose when a Turkish couple brought their four-year old son to a doctor to be circumcised. When severe bleeding developed, they sued him for bodily injury. After the Cologne administrative court rejected the suit, the State Court found that the doctor was responsible for causing “severe and irreversible damage to (the child’s) physical integrity.” Nevertheless, he could not be punished since he was unaware of the act's illegality. Thanks to the new ruling, this defense will no longer be permissible in the future.
Germany has around 106,000 Jewish and some four million Muslim inhabitants. In the Jewish religion, the Torah requires the circumcision of all male infants on the eighth day of life. “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep,” God lays it out in the Book of Genesis. “Between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.”
In Islam, circumcision is also mandatory, but the age at which it is to be performed varies from culture to culture. Ages ten to twelve are common for Germany’s largest Muslim immigrant group, the Turks, for whom the act represents a central rite of passage. Within this community, the boys are traditionally circumcised several at a time in a festive community “sunnet” ceremony complete with special circumcision suits, feasting, dancing, and presents.
Law professor Holm Putzke of the University of Passau, a dedicated opponent of religiously motivated circumcision, hailed the decision as “enormously important for physicians, because for the first time it gives them legal security. … Unlike many politicians, the court didn’t let itself be frightened off by the prospect of being regarded as anti-Semitic or anti-religion. … This decision could not only determine future legal decisions, but ideally also lead the affected religions to transform their consciousness and begin respecting the basic rights of children.”
A Jewish brit milah
So, after two thousand years of religious circumcision on German soil, does this represent the end of the debate? Don’t count on it. Jewish reactions have been fast and furious. Germany’s Central Council of Jews blasted the court’s decision as “an unparalleled intervention into the religious communities’ right of self-determination.” The Council’s president, Dieter Graumann, accused the court of committing “an unheard of and insensitive act. The circumcision of newborn boys is a firm component of the Jewish religion and has been practiced worldwide for millennia. This religious right is respected in every country on earth.” Graumann is demanding that the Bundestag take action and permanently legalize religious circumcision.
But what arguments can Graumann present, aside from the Book of Genesis? The first article of the German constitution states that “Human dignity is inviolable.” Thus the Cologne court’s decision was probably inevitable, since both European and particularly German society have become increasingly sensitive to the issue of child abuse, regarding it no longer as a natural prerogative of a child’s elders but rather as the very essence of violated human dignity. Ironically, the egregious and ongoing Catholic pedophile scandal, with its endless groping and buggering, may have helped sensitize society against sexual blood rituals like infant circumcision. The ongoing fight against the even crueler practice of female circumcision, today usually referred to as female genital mutilation or FGM, may also be having an effect on a previously unchallenged act.
But don’t expect these two religious groups to roll over without a fight. The Jewish Central Council will definitely make good on its threat to take the circumcision issue to the Bundestag and the Constitutional Court. So far there’s no word from Muslim groups, but their reaction will likely be a few orders of magnitude stronger. It may be too early to tell, but it’s just conceivable that the circumcision scar could become a new front in Europe's “Clash of Civilizations.”