Circumcision of young boys is not a right
For the past two months, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has been vilified as "anti-Semitic," "anti-religious" and "insane" and has been accused of promoting "hate and racist trends in Europe" for adopting, by overwhelming majority, a resolution on children's right to physical integrity. As the head of the committee that unanimously approved the draft texts in June - after two parliamentary hearings and several committee discussions - I have been saddened by this reaction, much of which has been characterised by bad faith or ignorance about what we said. So I want to set the record straight.
PACE brings together legislators from 47 countries and speaks for 820 million Europeans. Its reports and campaigns have inspired many laws in its member states and a series of international treaties that have, among other things, pioneered the protection of children's rights.
But pioneers are seldom liked and applauded, particularly on this issue. Our committee's resolution on children's right to physical integrity does not call for a ban on the circumcision of young boys, as many have claimed. The resolution calls on the Council of Europe's member states to "clearly define the medical, sanitary and other conditions to be ensured for practices which are today widely carried out in certain religious communities, such as the non-medically justified circumcision of young boys." Why? Because as Marlene Rupprecht, rapporteur of the assembly, pointed out in a September report, "there is evidence that unprofessional circumcisions may cause infections, organ curvatures, perforated urethra and, finally, additional operations, whilst even wrongly applied bandages can have severe consequences such as necrotic tissue and other irreversible damage. Some of the complications are regularly fatal." The medical evidence presented in our hearings was clear.
The assembly has been criticised for including the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons in a list of violations of the physical integrity of children. Our resolution noted that "supporters of the procedures tend to present [it] as beneficial to the children themselves, despite clear evidence to the contrary." This list also included female genital mutilation, early childhood medical interventions in the case of intersex children, and the submission to or coercion of children into piercings, tattoos or plastic surgery. All of these interventions permanently alter a child's body in some form or another, only to very different degrees.
To be clear, the assembly never equated female genital mutilation and the circumcision of young boys. It simply called on member states to "initiate a public debate, including intercultural and interreligious dialogue, aimed at reaching a large consensus on the rights of children to protection against violations of their physical integrity according to human rights standards." As Rupprecht noted in citing the need to differentiate between procedures: "There is certainly a clear line to be drawn between male circumcision . . . and female genital mutilation (FGM) which . . . is a procedure intended to control the sexual behaviour of girls and women throughout their lives."
It is a basic tenet of human rights law that one right may well conflict with another. The classic case is the right to privacy vs. the right to free speech. Regarding the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons, children's right to physical integrity conflicts with parents' right to freedom of religion. As many of its resolutions show, the assembly has been a strong supporter of religious rights. But in this case, when considering the relative weight of the human rights in question, the assembly gave precedence to the rights of children.
There is not, and cannot be, a "right" to circumcise young boys. Children are not mini-beings with mini-human rights. By contrast, in an accompanying recommendation, our assembly invited European governments to consider making "children's right to physical integrity" a continent-wide standard.
The assembly's resolution cannot be rescinded or altered. However, as we hoped, debate is underway - though not always in the most focused or productive manner. (What does it say about the quality of opponents' arguments if calling for a public debate is seen as a precursor to oppression and pogroms?) For our part, we will do our best to take that debate forward: On January 28, my committee will hold a follow-up hearing on circumcision. We hope that Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, as well as medical experts, will come together to discuss this further.
Religious practices deserve the most profound respect - but not when they result in irreversible harm to children.
-Special to The Washington Post