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German Court: A Child’s Right to Bodily Integrity Trumps Freedom of Religion and Parents’ Rights

June 27, 2012

As I write this, I am in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), where tomorrow Marilyn Milos (from NOCIRC) and I will be attending a meeting on infant circumcision, sponsored by the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG). The KNMG, as well as physician organizations from other European countries, are increasingly adopting the position that circumcising children is a bodily assault and a violation of their rights. Yesterday’s German court decision is excellent—in terms of timing and, of course, substance.

Every website that has posted the news is garnering hundreds, even thousands, of comments, this Huffington Post piece being just one example. On the pro-decision side are those who decry forced circumcision as infringing on children’s rights to bodily autonomy. Those who oppose the German court decision defend infant and child circumcision as the right of parents to practice their religion.

Georganne Chapin, Executive Director of Intact America

Georganne Chapin, Executive Director of Intact America

One of the functions of law in a civil democracy is to promulgate a uniform code of conduct. In a pluralistic society, when certain religious practices contradict or violate this code, or the rights of one individual or group interferes with or breaches the rights of another, the law (and any court that upholds it) provides guidance and—it is hoped—protects potential victims’ rights by prohibiting any such harmful practices.

There is no question that, but for the “freedom of religion” claim, holding down a baby boy and cutting off part of his penis constitutes a forcible physical and sexual assault, with visible and permanent consequences. Defending this practice by relying on a literal interpretation of a religious text ignores the fact that democratic law—while tolerating diverse beliefs—must protect those who cannot protect themselves. To label, or even suggest, that those who would protect babies from harm are anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim) is a tactic of pure intimidation.

Another less explicitly religious—but equally problematic—defense of circumcision relies on parental intent. “We do it for the baby’s own good” (so he’ll be cleaner, so he’ll find a wife, so he won’t be laughed at, etc.).  Sorry. The fact that parents who seek to have their children circumcised may have “benign” motives is irrelevant if the custom inflicts harm on the child.

Cultures or particular groups of people who favor corporal punishment defend it as a legitimate form of shaping behavior, but the courts in countries that recognize individual rights don’t buy this rationale. Cultures too numerous to mention condone child-beating and wife-beating as a means of encouraging better behavior in the future. Individuals from those cultures can believe what they want, but if they live in the United States, they are subject to U.S. law, and will be prosecuted for child abuse or “domestic violence” if they violate the law. Professed non-malignant motives don’t justify acts deemed to harm others.

A huge exception has been the circumcision of children. In the U.S., the fact that doctors adopted the practice as a way of making money (using a series of spurious and serially discredited medical rationales) has served for too long as a cover for religious groups claiming circumcision as their right under religious freedom.

Let us hope that the advocacy of European physicians to abolish infant circumcision, and the court ruling handed down in Germany this week, will lead to a change of consciousness with regard to the rights of children among American physicians and religious groups. The law will—as always—follow suit.

Georganne Chapin

36 Comments leave one →
  1. Eifelginster permalink
    January 5, 2014 10:02 am

    Activists File Complaint Against § 1631d BGB

    December 2013 – German intactivist movement tries to tackle circumcision law.

    Since december 2012 a circumcision law (§ 1631d BGB) principally allows parents to circumcize their son as desired. Now activists against HGM or any ritual mutilation (i. e. FGM and MGM) have written a petition to the German Supreme Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) and demand that the § 1631d BGB is declared as not being in accordance with the German constitution. Instead they call for an end of all circumcisions done without medical necessity.

    27. Dezember 2013
    an das

    Beschwerde gegen das Bundesgesetz über den Umfang der Personensorge bei einer Beschneidung des männlichen Kindes

    Die Beschwerdeführer legen daher gegen dieses Gesetz Beschwerde ein und beantragen durch eine einstweilige Anordnung nach § 32 Abs. 1 BVerfGG diese Vorschrift sofort außer Kraft zu setzen, um alle medizinisch nicht erforderlichen Beschneidungen, insbesondere Rituale wie Metzitzah B’Peh, pria und Praktiken wie im folgenden Link beschrieben, die sicherlich mit einer Zirkumzision lege artis nicht zu vereinbaren sind, trotzdem aber durchgeführt werden, zu verbieten bis das hohe Gericht über die Verfassungsbeschwerde entschieden hat.

    Die Beschwerdeführer beantragen zudem, die nicht medizinisch indizierte MGM an nicht einwilligungs- und urteilsfähigen Jungen auf die Liste der Auslandsstraftaten zu setzen, um sowohl Beschneidungstourismus zu verhindern als auch die gegebenenfalls erforderliche Strafverfolgung ortsunabhängig zu gewährleisten.

  2. A sad man permalink
    July 15, 2012 6:20 am

    Der deutsche Bundestag wird vermutlich weiterhin die religiöse Beschneidung erlauben. Der Grund ist der angebliche Internationale Druck, die Einschränkung der Religionsfreiheit und die deutsche Geschichte. Den letzten Punkt setzt die jüdische Gemeinde häufig als Druckmittel ein.

    • A sad man permalink
      July 15, 2012 6:21 am

      The German Bundestag will probably continue to allow the religious circumcision. The reason is the alleged international pressure, the restriction of religious freedom and German history. The last point is often to use the Jewish community as a leverage.

    • A sad man permalink
      July 15, 2012 6:59 am


      The German Bundestag will probably continue to allow the religious circumcision. The reason is the alleged international pressure, the restriction of religious freedom and German history. The last point is often used by the Jewish community as a leverage.

  3. Pete Samprass permalink
    July 12, 2012 3:37 am

    Kudos, human rights in Germany! A child can be circumcised at age of 18 if he likes to do so. (If there is a God/Allah etc.) He/She loves also a child with foreskin.

  4. Howard. permalink
    July 4, 2012 1:30 pm

    I applaud the courage of the German Court. Finaly, a decision that acknowleges that a parents “religious freedom” does NOT trump their child’s “basic human rights”. I would hope that our court systems in North America take notice and stop ignoring our laws, that are already in place, prohibiting child sexual abuse and assault.

  5. Shteln permalink
    July 2, 2012 8:46 am

    You respond by saying ‘only those who validate your beliefs are welcome to a discussion’
    I never reqested that. But what I think is crucial to a discussion is if you make empirical claims you have to back them up with evidence. Otherwise your arguments are weak and lack merit.
    ‘the medical community has no history of fraud and greed’
    Yes, I agree. 19th century religious puritanism corrupted sound medical practice by ‘medicalising’ a form of mutilation. Science, reason and sound ethics based on ‘first, no harm’ have been compromised to this day and we should take a lesson from it and improve the safeguarding of evidence based medicine by being more aware of fallacious claims that would be carried out with medical authority. No sound facts to promote circumcision? Then it should not be carried out and it never should have been. Religious demgoguery trumped sound scientific proof. Both men and women have paid a terrible pricre for that.
    ‘There is no way to prove an emotional experience or memory, but that doesn’t make it invalid.’
    I’ve heard this line of reasoning before. Quite often that means- then anything is valid. Well, no dice. And as there is no proof of ‘past-life’ existence it smacks of fraud. Some of us have already been harmed once, do we have to be exploited from it too? Quackery harms already vulnerable people.
    Only way to end the genital mutilation of children is with evidence, countering fallacious claims about harm(and its corollary claim of ‘benefits’) citing existing legislation that should apply and informing as many people as possible about the normal functioning of male genitalia- much of which is absent from justifications in favour of the practice.
    That’s all.

  6. Dan Bollinger permalink*
    July 1, 2012 3:54 pm

    I’ve been reading many of the articles on this event published around the world. Most of them seem to miss the point: the German Court’s ruling does not violate the BOY’s religious freedom, in fact, it preserves it. At the same time, it preserves his body.

    • Chris permalink
      July 2, 2012 6:39 pm

      It’s so simple that even a 5 year old can understand it, literally. The fact that a world of adults can’t understand it (yet seem to have no problems understanding if it’s a girl) is absolutely mind boggling.

    • Willow Wisp permalink
      July 5, 2012 2:25 pm

      Not really. The day the world’s adults understand it, is the day hundreds of millions of men have to look between their legs and realize what was done to them and taken from them. Then many others have to realize that they caused that damage and come to terms with it. So, so much pain.

      That’s what we’re up against, not the obvious question of whether something has more feeling after it’s been amputated, or whether the flying spaghetti monster is really handing you a scalpel.

  7. Chris permalink
    June 30, 2012 10:29 am

    This is great news! I have been thinking about his for several days and I think that Germany is the best country in the world that this could have possibly happened in. Germany is respected internationally as a major 1st world country, a country that (at least in recent decades) has been very free, modern, progressive and respectful of human rights. If a country like Costa Rica did this people could just laugh it off, “oh those Costa Ricans.” But Germany being a major power can’t be laughed off. When Germany does something the world cannot ignore it, the world will take notice.

    Also, circumcision is seen globally is an “untouchable” issue. But Germany is the one who has all the history of what happened in the 20th century (the tragedy of the Holocaust). So other countries will now feel that if it’s okay for Germany to touch the issue, then they certainly can because they don’t have all the history that Germany does. Germany broke the ice, now it will be much easier for other countries to follow suite.

    Also, I see this as Germany taking responsibly for what happened during the 20th century. It’s Germany’s way of saying, “I’m sorry” and giving retribution. The reality is, this is the best thing that any country has ever done for Jews. Germany is helping their Jewish citizens and providing them with the same legal protection that all other citizens get. Hopefully America will take notice and stop discriminating against Jews.

  8. June 29, 2012 3:39 pm

    One lesson of the American Civil Rights Movement is that changes in law PRECEDE changes of heart. A CHANGE OF HEART IN SOCIETY IS NOT NECESSARY TO PASS A LAW THAT IS JUST. When the law passes, everybody settles down and goes with the flow. By the next generation, what was once troubling becomes accepted.

    • Petit Poulet permalink
      July 1, 2012 9:21 pm

      The United States is in the same situation as Germany. We have a constitution and laws on the books that can be used to prosecute circumcisers. We have chosen not to. It is not a matter of going through the drama of pushing through new laws, but a matter of courage to enforce the child abuse and child sexual abuse laws that are already on the books. Germany had some courageous prosecutors and judges. In the US, courts go out of their way to find an excuse not to rule directly on whether infant circumcision is a human rights abuse, an unlawful assault, or child abuse. This is what happened in San Francisco, they used a law that did not apply infant circumcision (because it does not fit the state’s definition of a medical practice) and used it as way avoid the real issues.

  9. PLTC permalink
    June 28, 2012 3:50 pm

    Circumcision can result in repressed emotional and behavioral issues, including a reinforcement of sexual problems. Please check out this article “Anxiety & Male Sexual Issues Reinforced by Past-Life Traumas & Circumcision” Learn more at Past Life Therapy Center®:

    • Shteln permalink
      June 29, 2012 12:11 pm

      I’d like to think only evidence-based medicine and therapy are welcome on this site. Would that be too much to ask? It is spurious claims without safeguards that has led to this site in the first place.

    • ramorey permalink
      June 29, 2012 12:55 pm

      With this logic Shteln, only those who validate your beliefs are welcome to a discussion. And the medical community has no history of fraud and greed, which you want to rely on for “evidence”? That’s fine, but if you actually took the time to read the entire article (especially toward the end), it’s informative and offers an alternative perspective on the emotional and physical effects that can result due to circumcision. There is no way to prove an emotional experience or memory, but that doesn’t make it invalid. Have a wonderful day and thank you for any support in ending unnecessary circumcisions.

  10. Petit Poulet permalink
    June 28, 2012 1:55 pm

    In Germany, a majority of non-therapeutic circumcisions are done for religious reasons. To break the ice on this issue someone had to knock off the first chip. Too bad it was Germany given their history. Courts were presented with a conflict of interests and decided on the side of the child. Whether a baby boy is circumcised for religious or cultural reasons or just plain whim, the violation of human rights is the same. In stopping the practice, the approach may depend on what is motivates the circumcisers. I think honest discussion can only start with the acknowledgment that circumcision is a religious requirement that is also a human right violation. It is only when this dilemma is recognized that any discussion can take place. If one side dismisses the religious importance or the other side dismisses the human rights violation no progress can be made. The position of the other side does not need to understood, only recognized.

  11. B. Malofie permalink
    June 28, 2012 12:25 pm

    Moslems and Jews who are anticirc need to work on their own people in their own way; it’s not a good idea to blend both religious and regular circn as if it’s all the same issue – they are very different. Yes, theoretically, in both situations, circumcision is the removal of normal tissue against the will of the child, but that is far from the whole picture. I say leave the topic alone and concentrate on nonreligious, in-hospital or clinic cutting. Since it’s been going on for “only” 3 or 4 generations in significant numbers, there is a greater chance of being successful in banning.

    If religious/longstanding cultural circumcision of unconsenting children is banned in civilized western countries, the parents will just take the child elsewhere to have it done. Some will try to do it secretly themselves and I don’t want to contemplate what the results of that will be.

    • Mary M. permalink
      June 28, 2012 1:10 pm

      It is my understanding that there is no reference to circumcision in the Koran (Please correct me if I am wrong with the citation.), but the Jews/Hebrews are mandated to circumcise male infants:


      Genesis 17:10-14

      King James Version (KJV)

      10 This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.

      11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.

      12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.

      13 He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

      14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.


      There are Jewish people who are against circumcision, even in Israel as noted in Haretz for June 14th – “Even in Israel, More and More Parents Choose Not to Circumcise Their Sons”

      However, the deliberate mutilation of a child’s genitalia is still assault against the person, whether under the excuse of “freedom of religion” or not. There are other things we don’t do that were done in Bibical times, such as slavery, for instance.

      Circumcision of baby boys needs to be stopped and made illegal as there are no excuses for it.

  12. Miriam Pollack permalink
    June 28, 2012 11:57 am

    “To label, or even suggest, that those who would protect babies from harm are anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim) is a tactic of pure intimidation.” Yes! And, it is time that non-Jews are not intimidated by these ugly tactics. Balancing this is also the imperative that all those in the intactivist movement vociferously and publicly condemn the implicit and explicit messages of anti-Semitism, which, unfortunately, have been part of this movement and undermine the integrity of our most fundamental message: babies deserve our total protection–no exceptions.

    • June 28, 2012 4:50 pm

      I, too, feel frustrated when the Jewish community — my community — characterizes the intactivist cause as inherently anti-Semitic. That’s knee-jerk and defensive. But people are often defensive, about all kinds of things. I agree with Miriam: it would be extremely helpful if the intactivist movement would wholly denounce anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment whenever it rears its ugly head — and also, whenever it rears its pretty head (i.e., is cloaked in “innocent” language). A decisive effort to distance intactivism from all bigotry, whether explicit or implicit, would make it a lot more clear what intactivism is really about.

    • Michelle permalink
      June 28, 2012 8:53 pm

      But what one person thinks is anti-semitism, another person does not. Instead, a person may just be presenting the reality of a situation, which gets misinterpreted as anti-semitism. People are allowed to have a negative opinion about someone or some event. That does not make them racist. If I don’t agree with Obama, does that make me anti-black? Or Mitt, am I anti-Mormon? I am sick and tired of the whole topic of anti-semitism. It almost makes me anti-semitic.

  13. Jack permalink
    June 28, 2012 10:03 am

    Finally a country is standing up for the basic human right of a human to keep all of his sensory system, all of his nerves, all of his blood vessels, protective covering and pleasure zones.

    Other countries should follow this lead. Baby boy penis parts removal should be considered illegal NOW in the United States under the 1996 federal law banning genital cutting — 14th Amendment equal protection clause.

    Those saying that preventing the cutting off of penis parts of a baby boy violates the cutter’s freedom of religion, are way out there in irrational land. One’s religion ends where their knife touches another human’s body. The idea that another human’s ritual (rite) trumps ones right to body parts is insane and creepy. Baby boy penis parts removal cuts off thousands of fine touch and stretch nerves. This is like disconnecting the fingertips, nipples or lips from the brain. No human should be subjected to sensory system harm as well as a forced decrease of sexual function and PLEASURE for life!

    • Michelle permalink
      June 28, 2012 8:54 pm

      Amen! Well said!

  14. Dan Bollinger permalink*
    June 28, 2012 9:12 am

    The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1944, made a similar ruling which limited parent’s authority and their religious rights in regards to the child’s rights. The court ruled, “Parents are free to become martyrs themselves, but cannot make martyrs of their children, until they reach the age of consent, at which time they can chose for themselves.” This ruling creates a shield protecting children’s rights from parental religious actions which put the child in harm.

    • Howard. permalink
      July 4, 2012 1:34 pm

      The obvious question then is: Why have the courts failed to live up to their obligations and uphold the laws in place? It makes a mockery of the so-called “Justice system”.

  15. June 28, 2012 1:00 am

    I sincerely hope that this ruling does NOT get overturned. This could be a huge factor in getting people to realize just what circumcision is about and what it does. I want to see it featured on CNN and all the major news stations…..then maybe infant circumcision will not be hidden in the dark closet it has been in.

  16. Heidi M. permalink
    June 27, 2012 9:31 pm

    No one had a problem confronting the “religious freedom” defense and outlawing polygamy and child brides. No one had a problem confronting the “parental control” defense and banning FGM in ALL its forms, from the least invasive to the most horrific. But oh we wring our hands and just don’t know what to do when it comes to RIC on male children?? Why is this double standard allowed to exist?

    • Becky permalink
      June 27, 2012 10:18 pm

      You make a very good point!

    • June 28, 2012 1:03 am

      It’s all about patriarchy …… and what better way to flaunt patriarchy than by butchering the tender genitals of babies who are defenseless….and make sure everyone knows who is in charge. Horrible.

    • Michelle permalink
      June 28, 2012 8:58 pm

      It makes money for hospitals and physicians. This culture is not used to female circumcision, so it was easy to stop that.

    • Harmed permalink
      June 29, 2012 12:16 am

      Is there a better way to show a woman that she has no power than to turn her infant son over to a bunch of men to be tortured? This is patriarchy in it’s highest form. The child must conform and the mother must be shown to ignore her basest instincts.

    • chris permalink
      June 30, 2012 6:20 pm

      Great comment! You summed it up precisely.

  17. Mary M. permalink
    June 27, 2012 8:36 pm

    It is beyond any rational belief that deliberate sexual mutilation of a baby boy’s genitals falls under the umbrella of “freedom of religion.” Male infant circumcision without a medical reason is a sex crime against a child, and, finally a judge has the courage to say so. Freedom of religion gives people the right to worship the Christian Trinity, a monotheistic god, or several gods and goddesses or spriits or nature, or nothing at all. However, deliberately cutting off part of a baby boy’s body is nothing more or less than a sex crime and I hope that German judge starts a trend.

    As for the 19th century beliefs, those have been proven to be so false time and time again that we can disregard them completely. The main reason non-ritual circumcision is done is for the money it puts in the doctor’s pocket.

    Intact American can educate parents on the need to consider greed when deciding whether to circumcise their baby boy.and just say, “no” while handing back the permission form.

  18. June 27, 2012 5:10 pm

    I’m sure that parents who “choose” to circumcise their daughters have the best intentions in mind.

    I want readers to consider for a moment the rationale that “patents who circumcise their sons have the best intentions in mind.”

    The converse of this can only be that parents who circumcise their daughters are unthinking monsters.

    Followed immediately by a plea to others: “Don’t you dare judge me.”

    Those who try to legitimize male infant circumcision by claiming that patents who agree to this “have the best intentions” don’t seem to be interested in what intentions parents who cirvumcise their daughters have, and invariably assume them to be those of wanting “full control of their daughters sexuality.”

    The fact that circumcising a male child IS by definition dictating what his sexuality will be like in adulthood.

    I want readers to ponder how inconsistent people are with their arguments, and how oblivious people can be to their own fallacies…


  19. Jerrold permalink
    June 27, 2012 4:48 pm

    Yes, doctors like doing it for the money, but routine infant circumcision here in the United States came about from a different cause.

    It was these two nonsensical late-19th century beliefs:

    Masturbation causes all kinds of physical and mental afflictions.
    Circumcision will prevent masturbation.

    As more and more people stopped believing those ideas, the doctors started to invent various supposed medical benefits of circumcision.
    (Not that all of those doctors were liars; probably most of them sincerely believed what they were saying.)

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