The Blog

Circumcision Should Be Banned

Many of you may have already made your minds up and would describe your views as irreversible. So was the removal of my foreskin.

Have you heard the one about the blind mohel who 'got the sack'? I believe that it is time that he was made redundant, as the removal of a child's foreskin at a young age, when he is unable to consent, should be banned. The permanency, intimacy and violation of personal integrity that such a procedure involves require a strong and rational justification, which simply does not exist.

The central argument made in favour of allowing circumcision its religious and cultural importance for both Jews and Muslims. When pushed for an answer on why it is important, the response is invariably "because we are told that we must do this by (insert Holy Book/Religious Leader)".

The Chief Rabbi of Lower Saxony, near to where a German Court effectively banned circumcision earlier this year, argued that "It's more than a's a core part of the religion", but regardless of what he or Jeremy Newmark claims about its importance to the religion, it is indeed an ancient ritual.

Even if it is part of a Jewish view of finishing God's work by removing the unnecessary (and I note the lack of encouragement of child appendix removals), we no longer accept religious/cultural practices as self-evidently permissible in a liberal democracy and therefore further analysis is needed.

Medical opinion is anything but clear on the issue and although some say that circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV and that there are potential medical benefits, this is far from widely accepted. Indeed, others point out that the relationship between circumcision and HIV is unclear and the real risk of consequences strongly outweighs the unconvincing evidence that it is useful or necessary in terms of prevention or hygiene.

Objective sources are hard to find on this subject, but even the NHS website states that medically, the possible complications outweigh any potential benefits. This debate therefore must be premised on circumcision being a non-medical procedure.

One could certainly argue that because it is non-medical, the fact that any children die from infection or suffer gross and unbearable dysfunction or disfigurement after circumcision is enough in itself to say that it should be banned. The very fact that circumcision regularly takes place outside a hospital and is often carried out by religious figures who are not medically qualified presents real and obvious dangers.

There is also a human rights debate to be had about circumcision. Although there may be difficulties with limitation to overcome, one could certainly see the prospect of a teenage boy who has Gillick competence bringing a claim against the state on the basis that their right under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights to not be subject to "inhuman or degrading treatment" has been infringed.

The state's failure to protect the child from the permanent alteration of the penis could certainly be argued to be degrading. To contend that an adult's qualified right to manifest their religion under Article 9 of the ECHR somehow outweighs this, appears to show an archaic disregard for the rights of a child.

Consistent with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the concept of 'Parental Responsibility', parents should act in their child's best interests. The decision to circumcise is made with scant regard for this and is instead a pursuit of the parents' religious beliefs and/or cultural practices, which leaves children from the age of 8 days old (for Jewish boys) with a permanent reminder.

Dinah Rose QC recently made the contrary argument that circumcision is in a child's best interests, as part of a child's wellbeing is being part of a community. Whilst being typically formidably argued, this failed to acknowledge that if circumcision was banned, it would no longer be necessary to be a part of that community and that the same argument about cultural exclusion could be used for forced marriages.

It is also important to note that the tactic of portraying this argument to be anti-Semitic or Islamophobic and the use of Holocaust comparisons only weakens any argument in favour of circumcision and suggests that others don't stand up to scrutiny. Just as I know that most Jews and Muslims are not possessed by a desire to reduce their child's sexual pleasure and permanently disfigure them; it is intellectually lazy to label the anti-circumcision argument as motivated by hatred when it is largely a rationalist one.

The main cost of banning circumcision would be that religious groups are not allowed to carry out their religious/cultural ritual. Judaism and Islam would continue to survive and we would continue the modernisation of religious practices in civic society that includes, amongst others: the abolition of slavery; the ban on the death penalty; the ban on female genital mutilation (FGM); and the legalisation of homosexuality. Whilst I would acknowledge that FGM is not a perfect comparator, the permanent disfigurement, irreversibility, loss of sexual pleasure and lack of consent are all similar hallmarks. Vaccinations are widely accepted to be medically beneficial and are therefore carried out by the NHS as a medical procedure, making them entirely incomparable.

Put starkly, the benefits of banning circumcision of non-consenting children would be: (i) No potential complications; (ii) No permanent disfigurement of the penis and consequent reduction in sensitivity; (iii) No decision made about the child's religion eight days into his life; and (iv) Greater respect for the physical integrity of the child.

Finally, it is important to remember the position from which this debate should be taking place. Given that circumcision involves the non-medical removal of a child's foreskin without his consent and therefore a prima facie assault, as a society we must be convinced of the rational arguments in favour of it being permitted.

Many of you may have already made your minds up and would describe your views as irreversible. So was the removal of my foreskin.