The German parliament is debating two bills, one legalizing circumcision as long as it’s “medically sound,” and one banning the practice until age fourteen and after that only with the patient’s consent. The second bill appears consistent with the decision this past June by a Cologne Appeals Court upholding a child’s right to bodily integrity.

Steven Svoboda
Attorneys for the Rights of the Child


German parliament debates circumcision law

By Kay-Alexander Scholz
November 22, 2012

Germany’s parliament has started debating a draft law on infant male circumcision. The government wants legal security for Muslim and Jewish traditions in Germany.

In May 2012, a Cologne court ruled that the circumcision of a young boy on religious grounds amounted to grievous bodily harm and [is] therefore illegal. The decision prompted outrage and all of a sudden, many Jews and Muslims questioned their lives and acceptance in Germany.

Months of debate on the cultural and religious tradition of infant male circumcision in Germany followed. Nowhere else in the entire world has this debate been held “with such acrimony, frostiness and at times brutal intolerance,” Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said at the time.

The Cologne ruling led to a good deal of legal insecurity. In practice in the past, it had always been undisputed that parents could agree to a circumcision that is not strictly necessary from a medical point of view.

In July, the German Bundestag debated the difficult issue. Across party lines, lawmakers agreed that Jewish and Muslim religious life must continue to be possible in Germany and appealed to the federal government to draw up legislation.

In August, Germany’s Ethics Council unanimously recommended establishing legal standards, including the observation of minimum requirements such as information, medical pain treatment and a professional operating procedure.

Protecting a rite

In October, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet presented draft legislation. Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, pointing out that the international community is closely watching developments in the case, promised it would re-establish legal security.

The draft law foresees amending the German Civil Code by article 1631d, which is to be dedicated entirely to male infant circumcision. The operation would be legal if it is carried out according to “appropriate medical procedures” and does not endanger the child’s health, for instance in the case of a hemophiliac. Persons other than doctors who are trained in the art of circumcision, such as Jewish mohels, will be allowed to practice the rite during the first six months of a child’s life. The Central Council of Jews in Germany, which has announced it will introduce special training courses, says Germany already has four mohels, some of them trained rabbis and doctors.

Muslims also practice male circumcision, however, there is no strict definition as to the age at which circumcision is carried out; in practice it take place at any time before about the age of 14.

Grievous bodily harm

In November, the Bundesrat, or upper house of parliament, passed the draft law. Both the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Central Council of Muslims welcomed the move.

The Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, began its discussion on the legislation on Thursday (22.11.2012). An alternative draft law handed in by a group of opposition left-wing lawmakers was also on the agenda. They propose that parents should have to wait until their son is 14 so he can give informed consent for the procedure. After all, they argue, circumcision involves a grave operation in which the “foreskin is amputated.”

This draft takes into account criticism by children’s protection organizations and the Association of Pediatricians, which approved of the Cologne court’s ruling. In this scenario, circumcision on the eighth day after birth, as is Jewish custom, would be impossible.

The Bundestag Legal Committee is scheduled to examine the medical risks circumcision entails at a hearing on November 26.

No ban on circumcision

Millennia-old traditions that developed and took hold independently in different places, cultures and religious communities may be at stake. In Judaism, circumcision of male infants on the eighth day after birth is an imperative of great importance, comparable to Christianity’s baptism. It is founded in the Jewish written law, the Torah: here, God demands circumcision as a symbol of his union with the Jewish people.

In Islam, circumcision is a duty for Sunnis and Shiites alike; it is part of the Muslim faith.

According to the German government, male religious circumcision is not forbidden anywhere in the world. Sweden has legislation, introduced in 2001, on the preconditions for the procedure. In the US, where circumcision is a part of basic health care, it is practiced hundreds of thousands of times every year.


German lawmakers propose barring circumcision before age 14
November 14, 2012

BERLIN (JTA) — Some 50 lawmakers in Germany have signed on to a proposal that would bar ritual circumcision for boys under the age of 14.

The lawmakers — from the left-wing Social Democratic, Left and Greens parties — are hoping to preempt a bill that would allow Jewish and Muslim parents to choose ritual circumcision for an infant son under strict regulations including medical training for the circumciser and the use of anesthesia. The bill allowing ritual circumcision, which is awaiting parliamentary approval, was submitted last month.

Under the new proposal, the non-medical circumcision of infants would be prohibited and the procedure would have to be carried out by a trained urologist or pediatric surgeon, according to German news reports. The legislators reportedly insist that the child himself should be able to decide whether or not to allow “such a serious interference with his bodily integrity.”

The proposal was submitted to the parliament by three lawmakers. The new attempt is expected to meet vigorous opposition in the Bundestag.

The current campaign against ritual circumcision in Germany, which is led by a cadre of activists and boosted by some politicians on the left, picked up steam last May after a Cologne District Court ruled that the circumcision of a minor was criminal assault. The ruling came to light in the general public in June. In response, Jewish and Muslim leaders demanded a legal response that would protect their religious freedom.

Though the bill submitted in October introduces new restrictions on a ritual practiced without interruption for centuries in Germany, Jewish and Muslim groups have praised it as a way to protect their religious freedom against increasing onslaughts by opponents of circumcision. The new measure would undermine that security.