Religion And Bodily Integrity.

26 Jun

This seems to be the month of offending as many religious people as possible…

As I have stated in the post on Feminism and (Catholic) Religion, my lack of (thorough) knowledge of other religions usually (and rightly) prevents me from commenting on them in terms of feminist philosophy. However, Cologne’s district court has just handed down the verdict that the circumcision of boys due to religious reasons is punishable, and should be evaluated as actual assault.

Religious groups, both Jewish and Muslim, registered their protest against this verdict, and the Central Council of Jews in Germany (Der Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland) noted that this decision was “an unprecedented and dramatic encroachment on the right of self-determination of religious communities.”

I find this issue very difficult, especially in a german context. People both of Jewish and Muslim faith have historically been and are continuously faced with social pushback and outright violence when it comes to practicing their religion in this country. Furthermore, I would always have to take german history and the Holocaust into account when thinking about curbing the rights of Jewish religious groups, and the history of how Jewish people have been defined as “non-german” or foreign or undesirable, and certain practices other than christian ones have been condemned and illegalized.

There is a very thin line to walk here, and one could most certainly question why the district court is taking up this case that fundamentally concerns specific religious groups (and affects others, who are not necessarily believing in the religious value of circumcision, culturally), when one could also talk about the now existing legality of having children in public schools taught religious studies by priests (in a country that is supposed to be secular), or about the legality of having parents choose the religion of their children before said children can make that choice themselves at all.

I have no definite answers to these questions, but I think they are worthwhile the consideration. I also think this court’s decision is worthwhile a feminist consideration.

In the post about Catholicism and Feminism, one of the essential points I tried to make was that Catholicism and Feminism don’t go together because of the denial of bodily autonomy and bodily integrity of women*, especially in regard to reproductive rights. The right to bodily integrity is supposed to be a fundamental right of everybody – and children are people.

I have a massive problem with the equation of Female Genital Mutilation and male circumcision – usually brought forward by so-called men’s rights activists – for obvious reasons, but if the circumcision of a boy* or man* is not medically indicated and he is of an age where consent is impossible, I believe this procedure to be a violation of his bodily integrity. Parents naturally make all sorts of decisions concerning a child’s life and have a right to do that in order to keep a child from harm – but this particular decision undermines a child’s status and rights as an actual person whose body belongs to him_her.

People usually refer to studies that show that male* circumcision leads to decreasing risks of contracting and passing on STDs, that it simplifies hygiene, and that it prevents future problems that might lead to a medically indicated circumcision when the boy*/man* is older and the procedure is more painful and the healing process takes much longer.

Indeed, leaving religion or traditions aside for a moment, these seem to be  valid cultural reasons for circumcision. To me, however, these are not valid cultural reasons to forego consent and physically alter a child who cannot defend him*self. Whereas Female Genital Mutilation is never medically indicated, has no purpose whatsoever but misogynistic humiliation, and usually has significant negative impacts on the (sex) lives of women*, a parallel cannot be drawn to male* circumcision – a partial penis amputation might be more accurate when comparing the two. However, it is a physical invasion of boys*” private parts, and it obviously is irreversible.

In theory, it should not be difficult at all to weigh religious traditions v. the right to bodily integrity and the right to not be forced into a non-indicated medical procedure that physically alters you without your consent. This is feminist territory. It should also not be difficult to still reject the notion that male* circumcision is even anywhere near FGM, but, in turn, acknowledge that the issue of consent is a central one here too, and that both procedures are performed in the name of religion or tradition and are cultural expressions, and not medically necessary.

Finally, while I have to agree that this is a decision that targets, yet again, groups of people who are relentlessly targeted within german society, it seems to be a bigger issue than that. Circumcision is a tradition that is thousands of years old, and throughout the ages it did not only have a cultural, but also a health purpose. We are now in an era, however, that makes preventive circumcision medically unnecessary, and that offers better solutions for boys* and men* who do decide they want or need a circumcision when they are able to understand what this entails. Deciding for your child that s/he will have to have parts of her body altered to adhere to certain religious traditions or to follow a cultural paradigm is not justified by any idea of bodily integrity for every person, however, and directly violates the rules of consent.

Cologne’s district court’s decision was a difficult and maybe ambivalent one to make. I, nonetheless, do no think it was wrong.

8 Responses to “Religion And Bodily Integrity.”

  1. serialmel at 8:18 am #

    Regardless of whether a genital mutilation affects girls far more negative than a circumcision of the foreskin in boys, the fact remains that it is in both cases an act of violation of physical integrity. Here to argue with religion would be a persistence of the structures we are trying to overcome. The reference to the ‘special German history’ does not contribute to my mind, because just this past imposed on us, not religion should be used as characteristic of unequal treatment. Anything else would be hypocrisy imho.

    • accalmie at 9:54 am #

      Hi serialmel, thank you. I agree, obviously, that religion or tradition or custom is never a reason for the disregard of a person’s rights, and that brushing off the violation of bodily integrity as just something people do, would be hypocritical.

      I do maintain, however, that this is a particularly difficult case. You feel that “the special German history” has been “imposed on us”; I disagree. I don’t want to enter the “culpability/responsibility” debate, but, as I have tried to explain in the post, there mere fact that people of certain religions in this country have been and continue to be declared as “non-belonging”, and whose religious practices are being directly targeted on a multitude of levels (be it a Federal President declaring Islam as foreign to this country, or having neo-Nazis attempt the bombing of a new synagogue), makes this decision a right, but ambivalent one.

      Yet again, we call into question the customs of religions that are being “othered” in this country anyway. I think the conclusion of the court is right and that consent and bodily integrity are paramount, but:

      when it comes to the right of bodily integrity and autonomy, I would ask why representatives of christian churches are allowed on commissions that are supposed to determine when “life begins” and whether women* should be allowed to have abortions, and up until which week – that is a direct challenge to bodily integrity and consent in the name of religion. Yet, not one court seems to be bothered by that and §218 is german law.

      I agree with the decision, but I don’t think it can be evaluated without the interdependencies and without acknowledging christian privilege here.

  2. Narasengan at 2:31 pm #

    As a mother who has consent to circumcision for my son for a multitude of reasons, I have conflicting feelings about this judgement. Certainly it is correct that the child has not given consent, the parent makes this choice on the child’s behalf. The court ruling I think refers to this decision not being made “in the child’s best interests”. I am not sure I agree with that, because determining what is in the child’s best interests seems to be from a strictly medical point of view. I can honestly say, after much soul searching, heartache and tears I made the decision in my son’s interest and know – of course only retrospectively – that for him it was the right decision (by that I mean, he is pleased the decision was taken on his behalf at an early age, so that he does not need to make the decision himself now…)

    This does not negate the very true point however, that the child is not consenting – it is a very difficult call.

    I find your post and conclusions interesting. I thank you for writing this

    I also wanted to add this point:

    Given that many parents (I am neither Jewish nor Muslim) will continue to want their son to be circumcised regardless of the legal status of such operations in Germany, I would be afraid that illegalising male circumcisions will lead to more and more of these being performed at home by one-man bands on kitchen tables without proper hygiene or pain-killer…you catch my drift.

    Anonymous out of the wish to respect privacy of others :-)

  3. Samia at 4:08 pm #

    Thank you for this well-balanced article, I wholeheartedly agree! I think kosher / halal butchering is a very similar case (I’m not putting animals on a level with humans, though) where right-wing animal protection groups like to use aggressive racism in their campaigns.

    1892/93 warben in der Schweiz Tierschutzvereine für ein Volksinitiative für das «Verbot des Schlachtens ohne vorherige Betäubung». […] 49,18 % der Wahlberechtigtern stimmten ab; davon stimmten 60,1 % für das Verbot. Möglicherweise beeinflusste neben Sachfragen (Religionsfreiheit versus Tierschutz) antisemitische und/oder fremdenfeindliche Gefühle die Abstimmung […].

  4. kiturak at 1:02 am #

    While I tend to agree with all of this (and being white with a christian family background, it’s not really my place to do so), it just …. argh. To my knowledge intersex people are still operated without their consent shortly after being born to conform to one of the two legal genders, with actually terrible consequences. There seems to be a change here, too, though I’m not sure if this means it is actually going to happen. So intersex people themselves have been fighting for years/decades for this to finally end, showing medical evidence, showing suicide rates, still nothing. But with a relatively minor thing like circumcision that targets minority groups, HEY no problem! White christians will tell you how to do this right. – Not even mentioning other discrimination and abuse children face on a regular base. So, because I think people should be respected in their bodily integrity as well as be able to live free of other forms of abuse, this makes me sad. I can’t really argue with the decision itself, but the context is awful, just like the typical appropriation of anti-sexist/anti-heterosexist arguments just to make a racist point. But I still think you’re right. Only their focus is wrong.

    • zweisatz at 6:39 pm #

      Very good point. It should be a no-brainer that you can’t “correct the sex” of a person.

  5. accalmie at 11:51 pm #

    @Narasengan: Thank you for sharing your experiences. I understand the fear that parents might now have untrained people perform circumcisions secretly. I, however, think that’s an insufficient reason to avoid a formal decision on it, because I hope the decision at least gives people pause and leads to a broader discussion about bodily integrity of all people, including children.
    @Samia: Thank you for pointing to this other example of religion and customs, particular rights and german society… that was a spooky discussion back then :/.
    @kiturak and zweisatz: Excellent point, thank you, I really should have thought of that too *fail*… It is indeed really questionable that german courts (rightly) decide on this issue, but completely ignore the most blatant intrusion on children’s bodily integrity when it comes to (medically unnecessary) surgical alterations on intersex people. That, of course, also includes the only recently changed law to force transsexual people to have their bodies surgically altered in order to be officially allowed to change their sex*. Ew, it really is terrible whom society allows to have basic human rights and who is just not important, yet again.


  1. Links (2) « sanczny -

    […] Leave Vorhaut Alone Nach dem Urteil des Landgerichts Köln, das religiöse Beschneidung von Jungen für rechtswidrig erklärt,  schreibt _accalmie über den schmalen Grat zwischen Religionsfreiheit der Eltern und körperlicher Selbstbestimmung des Kindes: Religion And Bodily Integrity. […]

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