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German Court: Circumcision Is Cruel and Usual Punishment

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Conventional wisdom has it that the only thing that will unite races, religions and political factions will be the landing of a hostile Martian space ship.

It’s a little hard to plan for the exact moment of the next Mars attack. So invoking global terror from extraterrestrials might not be such a great strategy for fostering cooperation while threats like climate change and nuclear proliferation loom.

Short of little, green men, the next best global unifier may be an assault on a parent’s right to determine the fate of little baby foreskins.

In fact, that assault just happened.

A regional court in Cologne, Germany ruled on June 26 that a doctor had committed bodily injury to a four-year-old Muslim boy after the child bled following a circumcision. The ruling specified that the practice should not be carried out on young boys within the Cologne court’s jurisdiction and the decision immediately raised fears that it might set a legal precedent for the rest of the country. The court asserted that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.”

The aftermath: it was as if the Martians had shown up, and, in response, every blood feud in human history had been forgotten and Benjamin Nethanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas were dancing the Hora together in front of the Dome of the Rock.

In Germany, the reactions were literally that melodramatic: Muslims and Jews united in outrage, the Merkel government and a doctor’s group voiced extreme displeasure and virtually every major national newspaper howled in protest. No way that the broader implications of the court’s ruling will hold up for long.

It’s true that Germany has an approach toward social issues that might be looked at askance in some parts of the U.S. Virtually side-by-side with a circumcision article, Der Spiegel International ran an English-language piece on baby hatches, bank deposit-like slots in clinics where you can insert an infant and thereby put the child up for adoption anonymously. Obviously, Michelle Bachmann is not going to be doing public-service ads for Babyklappe any time soon, but, from a public-policy perspective, you can engage in a rational argument as to whether a hatch might be better than a doorstep.

So this is the point in my blog when I have to pretend that I’m the reader and ask the question that is invariably posed in the comments section of my blogs: What, in the $%^@@@,  does any of this have to do with science?

Overlooking for a second  Abrahamic  and other religious persuasions that go in for this ritual,  I think legitimate medical and scientific discussion can be had about the justification for the practice.

As many people know, circumcised men better avoid contracting HIV and other infections. That’s one very strong argument in favor.

The  counterpoint is the suggestion that an infant experiences psychological trauma and uncircumcised men have more sensitivity in their organs and so enjoy sex more, the reason, in fact, that some adults try to restore a foreskin by stretching the skin with weights or elastic bands.

Other studies on sex and circumcision have produced mixed results, some confirming sex-related effects, some not.  Still, one might ask: what’s the point in undergoing elective surgery at the age of one week?. Probably the best answer is: Tradition, Tradition! Tradition! (Copyright: Tevye)

It does seem after all that there really is a body of science behind The Tip. It doesn’t much matter, though. Religious passions will trump any of these considerations.  One headline read: “Circumcision ban is the ‘worst attack on Jews since Holocaust.’” With its ruling, the  Cologne court truly brought down  the wrath of the God fearing. Other courts will probably not be taking up any time soon whether the most common form of penile surgery causes pain and suffering.

Source: Dovid Cheskel/Wikimedia Commons

Note from GS: A misleading quotation was removed from the original version of this story.













Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Haxabutt 11:52 am 07/14/2012

    You’re not actually arguing for infant genital mutilation, are you?

    The German court’s decision was a brave and correct one, and I sincerely hope they don’t cave to superstition and junk science in the future. The perception of male genital mutilation needs to be brought into the future, to par with the ideas about female genital mutilation.

    There’s no reason at all to not wait until the male reaches the age of majority, so that they can decide for themselves if they want to hack apart their foreskin. To do so while they’re incapable of understanding is tantamount to performing elective surgery on someone that’s inebriated or unconscious. Absolutely incorrect, in a moral and legal sense.

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  2. 2. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 12:44 pm 07/14/2012

    “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.”

    Well, duh.

    One can imagine the outrage if a political party demanded party members children were to have their lips, noses, outer ears or eye lids removed as a party sign of children “members” – you don’t need those too much either.

    But later I think the article, well meaning as it is, has managed to conflate child rights with the practicalities of body modification:

    “As many people know, circumcised men better avoid contracting HIV and other infections. That’s one very strong argument in favor.”

    That is, perhaps, an argument why consenting sexually active men would modify their body. It isn’t relevant for children below sexual and consenting age.

    On that point however, IIRC some infection rates are also observed to increase by amputating the immune system active foreskin. I don’t think the health balance is looked at yet.

    And since condoms works much better, this amputation has mostly an effect in poor nations where it is socially acceptable. I can understand why you would consider it, but condom use is mostly frown upon for religious reasons as it diminishes control over sexuality and especially women sexuality. It seems economical concerns seldom is the only reason.

    That is also a minor and shrinking part of the world.

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  3. 3. Richieo 2:51 pm 07/14/2012

    I think the judge is right and should go further, parents should not be allowed to brain-wash their kids with religion, that should be a personal choice when aged 18 – 21…

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  4. 4. Ralf123 4:42 pm 07/14/2012

    Why do we condemn female genital mutilation but allow the male variant?
    There are several studies showing that the foreskin plays a big role in female stimulation during intercourse.

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  5. 5. ThePeakOilPoet 7:15 pm 07/14/2012

    I wonder how many men would make the full commitment to their religion if the circumcision was part of the coming of age rituals.

    Like imagine if your Bar Mitzvah highlight was not the reading of the scroll

    but getting your penis hacked

    let’s see, hmm, ah, how much do i really believe in God….


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  6. 6. RRZ 8:06 pm 07/14/2012

    You asked: “What’s the point in undergoing elective surgery at the age of one week?” and also mentioned “trauma” and “suffering.

    Fact one: The rate of blood coagulation peaks on day 8 after birth. When everything goes normally, it drops off and remains stable for the rest of one’s life. That is a clear medical reason for doing on day 8.

    Fact two: Regarding trauma – I have seen many curcumcisions, and in almost all of them, the baby fell asleep within 1-2 minutes of the actual surgery, even though there was always a crowd, and a lot of noise around. Not typical for a traumatic event.[The drop of wine placed on the tongue is not enough to explain the phenomena.]

    Fact three: There are ways to check out one’s history of trauma, many of them are widely used in alternative and some in conventional medicine – hypnosis, muscle testing, guided imagery [NLP and The Journey]. If the event is truamatic, it should happen to almost all of the babies, since at that age we have not yet developed stress and trauma management capabilities, and should be something that shows up in most of these tests and interventions. Does it? If it is traumatic for a moment but leaves no residue, so what’s the problem?

    Forth: not a fact but rather a stupid question… Have you ever asked someone who had the circumcision done at a later age if he would have preferred having it done on him as a baby and gotten a negative answer?

    Scientific advise to the courts: If you get enough statistical evidence that people who were circumcised as babies without being asked would not give their permission [theoretically and retroactively], then you would have an ethical case. Before then, since almost all of us are quite happy that it was done so early are totally satisfied, then who are you to misrepresent us?

    Clarification: Never have the circumcision done by someone who is not highly qualified!!!!

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  7. 7. Hugh77 10:58 pm 07/14/2012

    Well that was a waste of time, wasn’t it. If the latest you have on the effect of circumcision on sexuality is Laumann (1999) and not Sorrells et al. (2007) showing circumcision removes the most sensitive part, or Frisch et al. (2011) showing circumcised men and their partners have more frequent orgasm difficultires, perhaps you need to do your homework.

    “As many people know, circumcised men better avoid contracting HIV and other infections.” The intact men of Europe and Scandinavia, China and Japan are not exactly dropping like flies, and the HIV rate of circumcised men in Zimbabwe is still 2% (absolute difference) higher than intact men, as it was four years before their circumcision campaign began. (Similar differences apply in 10 out of 18 countries for USAID has figures.)

    The German doctors’ group is concerned that the practice will go underground – a concern that hasn’t stopped laws against female cutting – no matter how minor – throughout the developed world, but they have told doctors to stop circumcising, nonetheless.

    You don’t mention pain or risk – up to and including loss of the penis and death – or the growing voice of men who bitterly resent that (the best) part of their penis was cut off before they had any say in the matter.

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  8. 8. mikeywalk1 1:38 am 07/15/2012

    Making circumcision illegal in Cologne is not so different from making the burka illegal in France. I even see a pattern emerging. Women in France can’t wear a hood but men in Germany have to…

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  9. 9. Fanandala 6:04 am 07/15/2012

    I feel it is just a storm in a teacup. Of course the court is right. The circumcision is not performed for a medical benefit, but for tribal, traditional religious purposes and as such it should be postponed till the child is old enough to form an informed opinion. Maybe 18 years old, do I want to belong to this tribe or religion?
    I can not see how this little bit of skin can bestow an advantage or disadvantage, but if circumcision for boys is OK, then how will the court argue when the circumcision of girls is debated.

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  10. 10. promytius 8:35 am 07/15/2012

    Imagine this becoming an issue in the presidential elections – some uncomfortable minutes there for the West! So German courts are now psychological safe havens for innocents – awesome! Remind again of the science here?

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  11. 11. blubberguts 10:32 am 07/15/2012

    After a lot of soul searching we finally decided not to have our son circumcized.

    It was a very hard decision to make as a middle aged Australian; when I was a boy everyone was circumcized “as a matter of course”. At school any boy who was still in the natural state (We noticed in the toilets or in change rooms) was considered a “disgusting dirty freak”.

    Yet the more I thought about it it just didn’t seem right. It was after all our natural body state; how could nature have given us something that had to be modified by surgery? IE; if it was really true, then even before surgery was invented (It is, after all, only a few thousand years old) wouldn’t it already have been selected out as a trait?

    The only answer I could see was that it really was just tradition and prejudice and that there was no reason for it.

    Even though there were and are still many proponents of circumcision who defend it almost rabidly, I noticed that some of those who did were surgeons whose livelihood would be affected if it was stopped, and others were religious. How could they see the issue objectively?

    So we made the decision and I do not regret it. I must admit, coming from a family of four boys who were all cut, my son at first looked weird. He still does, a little, but less all the time.

    He’s three and a half and we’ve had no issues at all.

    Please think hard before you subject your children to what may just be a holdover from a more barbaric time.

    Sometimes sacred cows can be hard to see.

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  12. 12. wyocowboy 8:08 pm 07/15/2012

    its just right wrong to circumcise! I don’t give a shit if it is for religious practice….it is still wrong!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  13. 13. Michael Simm 4:44 am 07/16/2012

    Unfortunately, your headline does not correspond to what the court actually said. A detailed account of events can be found (in German) at this article from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

    Also, among the studies you cited, this one from “Thymos: Journal of Boyhood Studies” was missing: It claims that “approximately 117 neonatal circumcision-related deaths (9.01/100,000) occur annually in the United States, about 1.3% of male neonatal deaths from all causes”. If this claim was true, it would seem to be a high price to pay for any religious tradition.

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  14. 14. oldvic 6:44 am 07/16/2012

    The solution is an easy one: unless there is a specific medical reason for this procedure, it should be left to the adult male (I repeat, adult) to choose it if he so wishes.
    Tradition can be used to justify slavery, ritual murder, “honour” killings, and other such niceties. That to this day we accept mutilation of children only shows how far we still have to go from a civilizational standpoint.

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  15. 15. jgrosay 4:05 pm 07/16/2012

    Yeah!: circumcision is a mutilation, that probably not only may hinder adulthood sexual life in those having had this procedure in an unconsented way, but may have extremely deep effects on the psychosexual constitution of those suffering it in childhood. The procedure involves pulling the foreskin of baby, it can give him nothing but genital pleasure, this pleasure is linked to a male figure, as children may probably at any age above 8 days have memories of the gender of the person who did this, and this genital pleasure is also linked to the pain of the cut, a dangerous conditioned reflex. Circumcision was practiced by the Horus priesthood in the ancient Egypt with an obsidian knife, and do not necesarily somebody having the same voice as the God that invited Abrahan to go out of Ur is the same God that saved Daniel and his friends from the oven, or that liberated israelites from egyptians, or the one in imposing circumcision, voices can be mimicked, even some sorcerers can do that kind of things, and in India a man named Saibaba that died recently proclamed he was the true God with no obvious opposition from the true one God. Sincerely, the procedure has so many involved dangers, that if somebody insists in mutilating his helpless offspring this way for cultural or religious traditions, it would be wise at least making that the procedure is mandatorily done by a registered physician, and under some kind of full sedation-amnesia of the circumcised. Please, don’t start looking for the way to lapidate me!

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  16. 16. AtlantaTerry 4:20 pm 07/16/2012

    “snippet” LOL! I got it!

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  17. 17. Steve3 5:12 pm 07/16/2012

    “As many people know, circumcised men better avoid contracting HIV …”

    Celibates do even better .. but monogamous men do pretty well too.

    And by the way I’ve always remembered “Tradition, Tradition! Tradition!” as traditioooooooon traaadiTION!!

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  18. 18. Joseph4GI 4:34 pm 07/17/2012

    Is this really the “Scientific American?” Because this piece seems hardly “scientific.”

    Is Gary Stix going to go further than just “a doctor had committed bodily injury to a four-year-old Muslim boy after the child bled following a circumcision?”

    Here’s the problem; all children “bleed” following a circumcision. Conventional wisdom tells us that when you cut somebody, s/he will bleed. What is not being mentioned here is that the boy suffered more complications than just “bleeding.” There is a reason why the court in Cologne ruled the way it did, and that is because the boy is reported to have suffered complications of “hemorrhaging.” You can read what really happened here:

    But the plot thickens; new information reveals that the boy suffered more than just “hemorrhaging,” as he now has to live with a permanently deformed penis. Are these worth it for the dubious “benefits?” Is “tradition” a pressing medical indication that warrants the risk of hemorrhaging, a deformed penis, infection with MRSA, herpes, or even death?

    What does HIV, UTI and other “benefits” matter when the same “benefits” can be afforded WITHOUT surgery? (IE, condoms are 40% more effective than circumcision, and UTIs are already rare and easily curable with antibiotics?)

    But more importantly, how far do we care about “science” and “medical benefits?” What if it could be shown that female circumcision could “protect against HIV?” What if it could be shown that “female circumcision enhances sexuality?” Would there ever be a body of “science” large enough to make the Western medical community do a 180 and reconsider circumcision for girls? Or do we only care about buttressing our already existing defense of the tradition of male circumcision?

    For better or for worse, cutting a girl’s genitals is “tradition” in many different countries. Some say “it’s much worse,” but the same people have never actually considered that there is more than one kind of FGM; recently the AAP tried to endorse a “ritual nick,” and even they admitted that it would dwarve in comparison to male infant circumcision. In America and other countries, all forms of female genital cutting, even the kind that is equivalent, if not less-severe than male infant circumcision, is considered “mutilation” and punishable by law.

    How far do we respect “tradition?” How far do we use “science” to justify it? When do the rights of the parents stop and the child’s begin?

    Let’s stop pretending like parents have a carte blanche to do whatever they want with their children; if they did, there wouldn’t be a need for child protective services.

    Genital mutilation, whether it be wrapped in culture, religion or “research” is still genital mutilation.

    It is mistaken, the belief that the right amount of “science” can be used to legitimize the deliberate violation of basic human rights.

    “Scientific” publications are beginning to read more and more like the tabloids you see as you approach the register at your grocery store.

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  19. 19. Joseph4GI 4:36 pm 07/17/2012

    The foreskin is not a birth defect. Neither is it a congenital deformity or genetic anomaly akin to a 6th finger or a cleft. Neither is it a medical condition like a ruptured appendix or diseased gall bladder. Neither is it a dead part of the body, like the umbilical cord, hair, or fingernails.

    The foreskin is not “extra skin.” The foreskin is normal, natural, healthy, functioning tissue, with which all boys are born; it is as intrinsic to male genitalia as labia are to female genitalia.

    Unless there is a medical or clinical indication, the circumcision of a healthy, non-consenting individual is a deliberate wound; it is the destruction of normal, healthy tissue, the permanent disfigurement of normal, healthy organs, and by very definition, infant genital mutilation, and a violation of the most basic of human rights.

    Without medical or clinical indication, doctors have absolutely no business performing surgery in healthy, non-consenting individual, much less be eliciting any kind of “decision” from parents.

    I expected more from a publication that calls itself “The Scientific American.”

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  20. 20. SingleHerpes 12:51 am 07/19/2012

    I do not think circumcision is useful as I can see more and more new members at HerpesFish.c0m, a dating and support community for people with HERPES I have been in for years.

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  21. 21. admeralthrawn 7:41 pm 07/20/2012

    While I’ve seen statistical data on the infection-reducing benefits of circumcision, I have yet to see any kind of data (as opposed to collection of anecdotes) about the relative benefits of retaining a foreskin. I sympathize with a precautionary approach to irreversible body modification, but so far all I’ve heard is theoretical reasoning for the benefits.

    Have there been randomized surveys? Studies interviewing adults who underwent circumcision after becoming sexually active? I really am curious about whether this data exists.

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  22. 22. changeling 6:16 pm 08/1/2012

    Is it possible for an un-circumcised male to live a normal and productive life? My hand is up for being a good example and a happy one. Would I have one of my kids be abused and molested with an arbitrary barbaric religious tradition? My hand is not up for that. Would I speak up about other barbaric arbitrary religious practices like “Kosher” and “Hal Al” slaughter of animals. My hand is up. Cheers!

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  23. 23. Shpongleezi 12:20 am 11/14/2014

    All I can say is that I agree with the Germans on this one. It’s bodily harm. I have a few Jewish friends and some of those don’t like the fact that they were circumcised and there’s nothing they can do about it. I myself am intact and I feel so lucky and so blessed to be able to experience intercourse the way I was always meant to. I am a very compassionate person and as someone full of empathy I always found this practice barbaric and cruel, regardless of whether it’s done by a religious follower or a doctor. In fact, I think it’s worse when doctors do it. This practice has no place in medicine, it is purely a religious ritual no different than female circumcision. My heart goes out to all the mutilated men and all the children who will be mutilated because people that are supposed to protect them from bodily harm lack common sense, knowledge and basic human instincts like empathy, compassion and self projection to realize that this procedure is no different than female circumcision.

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