Iceland’s proposed ban on male circumcision: Ending religious tolerance or promoting human rights?
This week, the Icelandic Parliament has put forward a bill in which there would be a penalty of up to six years in prison for parents who have a circumcision performed on their babies or young sons.
Harriet Sherwood in the Guardian reports that this is ‘for anyone carrying out circumcision for non-medical reasons’.
She also states, ‘one in three men globally are thought to be circumcised, for religious or cultural reasons and many Jews or Muslims fear the issue .. could become a proxy for anti Semitism and Islamophobia’, with tensions over religious dress and ritual animal slaughter also rife.
If it goes into law, Iceland would be the first European country to ban religious male circumcision.
Growing up in the UK Jewish community, child male circumcision, or Brit Milah in Hebrew, was always presented to me as a right of passage.
The male child is named on their eighth day in the world and circumcised (removal of the foreskin) in front of family and friends, as part of a covenant with God to keep the Jewish faith.
It is intrinsic to a man’s identity as a Jew in religious law. The act is done by qualified specialist doctors named Mohels and often in peoples homes using sterile equipment and sometimes anaesthetic creams (or in hospital if required by parents).
Many Jews and Muslims also eschew male circumcision because they do not believe in it religiously or worry about their human rights or that of their child.
Most of the Jewish men I know personally have not complained about their human rights being infringed with circumcision, due to it being done at such a young age – some do not remember it at all.
However, some Jews and Muslims around the world have spoken out to charities about their physical and mental health issues which they feel were caused by circumcision and infringement of their rights. This is in the minority, but no less important.
Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir MP, who put forward the bill in Iceland, says that the non-medical circumcision of baby boys violates their human rights as outlined in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, and compared it to female genital mutilation (FGM) which is banned in Iceland and the UK.
Both Jewish and Muslim leaders have angrily criticised the bill, calling it an attack on religious freedom and tolerance.
Salman Tamimi, quoted in the Independent and president of a Muslim organisation in Iceland has reacted to this, calling it an ‘attack on religion’. He also comments that he was particularly concerned about the potential impact of the bill on the small Icelandic Jewish community and any prejudices towards them.
Milah UK, the Jewish group that campaigns to protect religious circumcision released a statement on this in which they commented,
‘Brit Milah is a minor procedure. The parents expect that it will be carried out in a clean environment by a trained practitioner.
‘There is no recognised long-term negative impact on the child for the rest of his life.
‘Millions of men are circumcised around the world and are unaffected in their everyday lives by having undergone the procedure.’
They also feel that Brit Milah and male circumcision in the Islamic faith is incomparable to FGM as it is a minor surgery and does not cause painful intercourse or severe medical complications. It is also not done for brutal or negative reasons.
We spoke to a Jewish Mohel (a doctor of circumcision) in the UK about these issues, who is qualified medically. While they wish to remain anonymous they have said,
‘Child male circumcision embodies what it means to be Jewish for mothers and fathers. The rite connects with past generations.
‘To prevent Jews from performing Brit Milah would present a break in tradition and an attack on the sense of deep belonging that Jews have.
‘This is why most Jews will staunchly defend the practice.’
Furthermore they told Metro about the issue of circumcision of a baby boy without anaesthetic.
‘Orthodox Jews usually don’t like to use anaesthetic in general because it is not the ‘traditional’ method.
General anaesthetic comes with a risk of complications, doctors need a pretty urgent reason to put an eight-day-old baby to sleep!
‘For local anaesthesia, again there are different types and some Mohels are happy to employ these methods.
‘One option is an injection of a numbing agent into the nerves.
‘In theory this should numb the organ and therefore cause less pain to the child however several injections would be needed and as the anatomy is so small, it may not be precise enough to stop pain.
‘Numbing creams can be used but their use is not widespread.’
However, Dr Mohammad Howlader of the London Sunnah Circumcision Clinic, an expert in the Islamic community on circumcision, does use anaesthetic.
‘The pain [experienced by the infant] is only for 10 seconds from a local anaesthetic injection with the smallest needle,’ he says.
‘We infiltrate local anaesthetic (combination of short acting lignocaine and long acting bupivacaine) injection around the area before the procedure to ensure the baby is pain free. This works with immediate effect.’
But not everyone believes that circumcision is a harmless procedure.
David Smith, Chief Officer of 15 Square Charity which supports men around the world who have been affected adversely by male circumcision, spoke to Metro saying,
‘We deal with numerous cases of harm each week.
‘There are many physical issues that can arise after circumcision.
‘Because this procedure is often performed in infancy, often without anaesthetic, many men also suffer mental health symptoms such as PTSD in later life.
‘Our organisation is currently training counsellors and psychotherapists to deal with this issue.’
Richard Duncker from Men Do Complain agrees with this saying,
‘The proposed ban addresses the anomaly of having a gender-specific law for genital cutting. The ban gets rid of that anomaly in Iceland.
Circumcising a male baby’s genitals is not enforced by the UK authorities as an assault or wounding as it should be, due to religious freedom.’
So, who is right on this issue? The outcome of the Icelandic bill remains to be seen.
However, the debate between whether child male circumcision is harmful to the child or whether it breaches their human rights continues.
As a Jew, I strongly hope that Brit Milah and Islamic circumcision are not outlawed completely but stress the importance of it being done by only a qualified doctor, who will care for the child and limit their pain.
It is undoubtedly a very complex issue.