A bit of news I missed from last week: a German court has ruled that ritual circumcision of boys amounts to grievous bodily harm, and ought not to be practised on children unable to consent.
The regional court in Cologne, western Germany, ruled on Tuesday that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents”, a judgement that is expected to set a legal precedent.
“The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised,” the court said.
This is a big victory for bodily autonomy here, placing this right above any others, including carrying with it the implicit assumption that parents do not always know best for their children.
In an ideal world, of course, we would not need to be having this discussion: people would just know it was a bad idea to lop bits of genitals off someone without their consent because it might have been a good idea among a desert-dwelling nomadic people in the Bronze Age, and they would not do it. It is unfortunate that it requires state intervention to get this message across.
Using state intervention to rule for the essential right of bodily autonomy is problematic. Firstly, it has caused outrage and accusations of persecution from those who practice ritual circumcision, who view this risky and unconsensual procedure as an essential part of their cultural heritage. This may provoke tensions.
Secondly (and relatedly), state intervention does nothing to address the root causes of ritual circumcision: the genuine belief among many that this is what ought to be done because a possibly fictional book says so. Due to this rather dangerous belief, I am concerned the practice will continue anyway, in back rooms or by crossing borders to every other country in the world that fails to respect bodily autonomy. As for those boys whose parents followed the law, what might be their fate? The court has explicitly protected the parents’ “right” to “educate”, suggesting that these boys will be bombarded with “information” about why their bodies are dirty and disgusting and they should undergo a procedure that carries risks as soon as the law will allow it.
In this situation, is it really any more consensual than hacking a bit of penis off a baby?
And this is the thing that really needs to change, a shift in thinking from archaic tradition to a respect of bodily autonomy. It is one thing for someone to decide to remove their foreskin because they like the way it looks, or it’s a kink. It is quite another for this procedure to be performed on someone without their consent, or under conditions of coercive misinformation. Religion has an ugly habit of poking around in our pants and, as with issues such as clitoridectomies and abortion, it needs to stop.
Perhaps the use of state intervention will promote discussion of these issues, awareness of the absolute deal-breaker that is bodily autonomy. Perhaps it will provoke a slow shift towards religion relaxing its grasp on people’s genitals. This is the route that thought must go, rather than reaction and backlash and searching for loopholes.
What a person does with their body must be a free choice.