getting a baby’s consent is no easy matter

a delicate matter of judicial curiosity

Several years ago, I was reading Gary Shteyngart‘s 2006 Absurdistan, and there was one thing I found rather curious. It’s possible that everyone knows about this, but in my circle of friends the topic of late-in-life circumcision rarely, if ever, comes up. Ahem…as it were.

This is undoubtedly a sensitive subject, and I assumed the author was using it for effect. The main character, Misha, insists that losing his foreskin was a traumatic experience. That this event was something that continued to plague him. To cause him emotional anguish. It was part of the satire, right? This wasn’t a real thing. And if you were so inclined to have such a medical procedure when you were a teenager or young adult, then you have only yourself to answer to.

I filed this in my mental file as a non-issue. Used by a novelist to make a point. Nothing more. Nothing less.

But the subject has reared its ugly head again. Well, not specifically late-in-life circumcision, but you’ll soon see how it’s related. See, a German court has made a curious ruling on circumcision. Just the old-fashioned baby snipping. Before I get to my point, let me let Der Spiegel’s English page describe the facts of the case:

Circumcision Ruling Is ‘a Shameful Farce for Germany’

The press in Germany has, for the most part, supported the outcry about this decision, and you can see reactions from several prominent papers listed at the bottom of the article. To summarise, the court ruled that circumcision amounted to inflicting bodily harm on the baby. Ok, that seems a bit weird to me.

It’s been in the news for weeks. In the printed media, there’ve been many German doctors who have publicly questioned the practise of circumcision. The entire uproar has seemed bizarre to me. I assumed that what I’ve repeatedly heard was true. Male circumcision was hygienic. Case closed.

Apparently, that’s not necessarily the case. Or the data is more inconclusive than one might have been led to believe. I’m suddenly really curious about the whole story. Are the German doctors politically motivated? Are they hostile to religion?

Then I read this in the Guardian:

Circumcision ruling condemned by Germany’s Muslim and Jewish leaders

Not sure you really need to read the whole thing, but it does tell the same story in simply another way. There was one part that stuck out, though.

‘After much deliberation, it concluded that a circumcision, “even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent”.

It ruled the child’s body would be “permanently and irreparably changed”, and that this alteration went “against the interests of a child to decide for himself later on to what religion he wishes to belong”.’

Here I really had to do a double take? Consent? From a baby?

Oh, no. That’s the point. The baby can’t give consent. He’s being de-foreskinned against his will. Or potentially against his will. Suddenly Misha’s issue doesn’t seem so preposterous. Well, actually. It still does.

Yet, is the widely-held belief false that this is a practise done for hygienic reasons? Are the doctors, as well as this specific court, persecuting religion?

It seems hyperbolic, when Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt says that this is the, “…worst attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust”. But is it really?

Look, I’m really curious about this. If you can shed light on this, I’d love to hear your explanation. Leave a comment if you like. Don’t be a jerk, though. I don’t have any sort of comments filter, but if you write something inflammatory, I’ll delete your idiocy in a heartbeat.

What’s the deal with this ancient custom? Is it a barbaric act that the Germans are making a stand against? Because it’s a religious practise, does that mean that questioning it makes us intolerant bigots? We’re dealing with integration next week over at The Munich Times this week. This actually might become a topic of emigration if it’s not resolved adequately.


  1. My husband and I spent a lot of time talking about this before we had kids. Surprisingly (to me), he didn’t want our boys to have it done. We got a lot of “but what if they wonder why they don’t match daddy?” questions, which I think are probably the most ridiculous arguments ever.

    Anyway, my boys aren’t. A friend of mine who is Jewish and married to an Israeli-Jew husband – they have a boy and they didn’t have it done. A lot of modern Jews don’t believe it’s necessary anymore, either.

    I don’t think that’s the kind of decision parents should be making for their children. We’re not wandering around in the desert without proper hygiene facilities anymore. If we were, it would kind of make sense, but since we’re not…there’s no reason to.

    (my opinion only)

  2. I was sitting here thinking, “what do I think about this?” because I totally heard about this a few days ago, and honestly, eh. If parents want to do it to their boy-children, fine. If they don’t, fine. Like sj said, we understand hygiene now. It’s not a hygiene issue. And in TMI-Amy-TMI-AMY!-of-the-day, they’re both equally pleasant, visually. (And in all other -lys. Ahem.)

    Why do courts get involved in such things, is my question. Who cares? Shouldn’t it be up to the parents to decide such things? Are they worried that kids are going to sue their parents and tie up the court system as adults or something? Or is it a religious thing? I honestly don’t know. I find it kind of baffling.

  3. Having experienced the parenting of both scenarios, it’s certainly easier in the first few critically hard weeks to NOT deal with circumcision wound care (that’s a lame reason, I know, but so is hygiene). The primary fact I’ve seen in support of circumcision is that it reduces STD transmission, which really is also a lame reason. Raising responsible adults with respect for others and themselves is a much more effective approach. The comforting thing is that from my experience it really doesn’t matter. Kids turn out fine either way. They don’t ask about it, worry about it, remember the procedure or compare wee-wees. I also think I’m finally ready to reject EVERY complaint about government policy based on religion. Policy should be debated on the merits only.

  4. It’s a non-decision. It’s barbaric and should be outlawed. Circumcision of any kind on any gender should result in the removal of the child from the parents, except when specifically and medically necessary.
    And Mr Schte, er Scher er Schetr, er Gary seems to have pinched the title of Eric Cambell’
    s 2005 book.

  5. Both my boys are circumcised. My husband is circumcised. My ex-husband is. Also my brothers, nephews, and every man whose part I’ve seen except one. And none of those male people are Jewish. Twenty-five years ago there was no discussion about whether it was barbaric mutilation or not. It was considered a necessary hygienic practice. In fact, one nephew had to get MORE foreskin snipped when he was three? Four? because “not enough” had been taken the first time around and he was continually getting infections. And while in my family we may not be big on housecleaning, we generally keep our kids pretty tidy. And the later circumcision didn’t faze him a bit.

    I think circumcision is a Southern thing in the US, because we’re backwards, and a mosly religious thing elsewhere. Because we don’t have any Jews in Arkansas. Or we do, but only enough to be a half-assed showing at a Jewish food festival. Which I went to, because the notion of a Jewish food festival in Arkansas was quite startling to me, and I had to check it out.

  6. I wasn’t sure how this topic would be taken. Judging from these comments, this is a perfectly reasonable subject for blogging. Glad that worked.

    My mother read this & offered to tell me her thinking about how she decided whether to have my brother and me circumcised. If that’s interesting, I’ll ask her to add it here. Or I might update my original text.

    As is often the case, the political firestorm is more interesting than the original question. This has been an odd and intriguing drama in German politics & it’s showing no signs of going away.

    This used to be a Dachshund Blog. I’m not sure I have the wherewithal to do a Circumcision Blog.

    Incidentally, I’d have gone to the Arkansas Jewish food festival, as well. The thought is making me hungry.

  7. I only had a daughter so in that sense the subject was never discussed and as far as I know, no one in the family was ever circumcised. I never knew anyone in my own experience who was circumcised but then, my experience is quite limited.

    However, I enjoyed reading the blog and the comments so I suppose I have learned something which is worthwhile in itself.

  8. I know that my grandfather ended up getting a circumcision in his 70s because his foreskin had been getting infected throughout his life and he was tired of it. I don’t know if this speaks of the benefits of circumcision or of the lack of hygiene on my grandfather’s part.

  9. I’m from the West Coast of the US originally, a place with a large Jewish population and a growing Muslim one. From any race or religion, though, raised across the country, most female friends of mine in their 20s and 30s report having never seen an uncircumcised penis and are horrified by the idea of one. General opinion always seems to focus on deep revulsion to it aesthetically, complete ignorance of uncut penile function, and adamant declarations that they would run screaming from any sexual encounter that provided their first look. Circumcision, in my experience, is immensely widespread, to the point where most mothers I know had their sons cut so they would ‘fit in’. It is only now being brought up as a discussion point, and the vast majority of women who do so are considered ‘radical’ or ‘hippie’ in some way. I will say that decision not to circumcise seems to be much more popular in Asian families I have contact with than in white or other non-Jewish/non-Muslim families. I also know, however, couples who were strongly pressured by their doctors to have it done even after initially refusing. It seems very much a part of the culture, reinforced by medical professionals and health experts – on the basis of solid science or not, I don’t know.

    i moved to the UK – London – in my early 20s, and my experience there, while limited, was that while everyone was aware of both options as genuine options, circumcision was likely only something to be undertaken for religious or cultural reasons. None of the white, ostensibly Christian or non-religious friends I knew had been circumcised or planned to have their kids be. It happened, it was around, but it seemed mostly limited to the communities that traditionally practised it. Others would never dream of it, and seems to view it as a bit weird – a definite eccentricity compared to the ‘normal’ way of doing things. (Gotta love the English.) Again, my experience here was quite limited, but I did date outside my religion and race quite a bit, so I got some kind of an idea. If my impressions were wrong, apologies – I would be interested to know more and have a wider understanding of this in the UK!

    I live in New Zealand now, where there is a very minimal Jewish population (less than 0.2%), and only a recent – albeit growing – Muslim population. Circumcision here, among the parents and families I know, and also among my friends, is almost unheard of. To compare with those families I know in the States who circumcised to help their sons fit in, friends I know here have done the exact opposite. One couple had a legitimate medical reason to circumcise their son and chose not to, instead committing to a long-term treatment plan to correct the issue – because he would be seen as very different growing up and as a sexually-active adult. They were very concerned about the potentiality of the treatment failing, because circumcising him was seen as very dire and a very big potential embarrassment issue or handicap for his future. Almost no women I know here have ever seen an circumcised penis outside of porn – it’s that rare – and they show an equal lack of awareness about how it would function. there’s no revulsion, just confusion, generally. I get asked about it a lot when sex comes up, because people do know about the proclivity for cutting in the States, and want to know why it’s so widespread.

    I shared much of this with Ken on Twitter, and he asked me to comment here. Hope it’s helpful! 🙂

  10. Why is it that when a woman is circumcised it’s called Female genital mutilation (FGM) and when it is done to a boy it’s “normal” or “hygenic”. I know that usually there is a lot more “damage” when it is done to girls but I feel it has the same premiss: “injury to the genital organs for non-medical reasons”.

    The removal of the foreskin seems to resemble FGM type 1 “the removal of the clitoral hood” and it is forbidden in a lot of countries……

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