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Talking back

A science blog, sans blague

German Court: Circumcision Is Cruel and Usual Punishment

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Circumcision

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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