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Balance of rights

02 March 2018

MALE circumcision is, naturally, a sensitive subject. The tabling of a Bill to ban the practice, by a minority party in the ruling coalition in Iceland, has been enough to trigger a shiver of con­cern across Europe. The Bill, from the centre-right Progressive Party, seeks to restrict infant circumcision to medical grounds only. Circumcision for religious or cultural reasons could be per­formed only on a consenting adult, on pain of a six-year prison sentence. The Bill has little chance, if any, of attracting enough signatories in the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, to become law, but polls suggests that a majority agree with the sentiment, and more than 400 doctors in Iceland have expressed their sup­port. Since 2006, only 21 circumcisions of boys aged under 18 have been carried out by medics; so most of these doctors will have no direct experience of the practices. (There are thought to be fewer than 200 Jews and approximately 1500 Muslims among Iceland’s 334,000 population.)

Perhaps it was inevitable that support for the active campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM) would leach into male cir­cumcision (labelled by some “MGM”); but there is no com­pari­son in terms of the damage done. Medical opinion about male circumcision, competently and hygienically performed, is divided: any health benefits appear to be slight; instances of long-term harm appear to be very few. There is no such question about FGM, and it is to be regretted that moves to stamp out the practice in the UK and overseas are making little progress.

The Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, Lord Williams, has said: “It has to be recognised that circumcision is an integral aspect of Jewish identity, not a mere cultural extra. A ban on the practice in any country would amount to an expulsion of observant Jews.” Circumcision is widespread among Muslims, too — thus a ban on the practice, while appearing to stem from child-safety con­cerns, fits very well with an anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant world-view. Essentially, however, judging by the way in which opinions are being expressed, those involved in the debate are exercised by the apparent contradiction of different rights: the right of children to be protected from harm, the right of parents to order the lives of their children, and the right of people to follow the ancient prac­tices of their religion. Christians, who see no religious reasons for circumcision, will none the less wish to support a careful balance of all three, given the lack of evidence that any harm is caused.

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