Where Human Rights Collide Circumcision Debate Has Berlin Searching for Answers
A fierce debate over circumcision has been raging in Germany for weeks and has caught Chancellor Merkel's government off guard. Berlin is now hoping to introduce a law regulating the practice, but it is a delicate issue due to the religious passions involved. It could take years before it is resolved. By SPIEGEL Staff
Dr. Ulus likes to listen to the French Suites by Bach while he severs the foreskins of his patients. Ulus, a pediatric surgeon in Cologne, says that classical music soothes the children. If all goes well, he has cut off a dozen foreskins by the early afternoon. "I uncover penises and show them the world," says Ulus.
Hikmet Ulus is a cheerful man who has earned a small fortune as a pediatric surgeon. He is not a fan of the circumcision debate. Germany has been talking about penises for weeks now. It's become customary to discuss the pros and cons of life without a foreskin over lunch, and women too are contributing their experiences to the discussion. Circumcised and uncircumcised men are speaking up on talk shows, and Germans are discovering, willingly or not, which men in the circles of colleagues and friends are circumcised and which ones are not. Dr. Ulus feels that the discussion has become problematic. He advises parents considering circumcision for religious reasons to hold off for the time being.
The agitation over a little piece of flesh certainly has its amusing sides, but the debate is very much a serious one, and controversial.
Just how to deal with the male foreskin has even become an issue that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been forced to consider, and she has called Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger several times in recent weeks to discuss it. The Chancellery sees Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), as a particularly contrarian cabinet minister, while Merkel has a science background and sees the world from a very practical point of view.
But in this legally complex and sensitive matter, Merkel has welcomed the advice of her justice minister. The debate was triggered by a ruling by the Cologne Regional Court, which criminalizes the circumcision of boys for religious reasons. At first, the two women treated the matter as an aberration by a German regional court, which a higher court would later correct. How, after all, could a few judges from Cologne ban a religious requirement that Jews have observed for thousands of years, and one that all Muslims in Germany observe?
'A Token of the Covenant'
The ruling, pronounced on May 7, only became public at the end of June. Since then, the controversy has been escalating almost daily. Suddenly the world isn't just interested in Merkel's European policy. People across the globe have become transfixed by those strange judges who want to forbid Jews and Muslims from performing a ritual that is as natural for them as baptism with holy water is for Catholics. When Merkel and Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger spoke on the phone once again on the weekend before last, they quickly agreed that they could not allow the debate to run rampant. They decided that the government would introduce a new circumcision law that, in the sober words of the secular constitutional state, would allow what the First Book of Moses puts in this way: "And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you."
The whole affair could, of course, be seen as a legal farce. Only a few countries have dared to regulate circumcision by law. It is readily practiced in many Western countries, even though it sometimes also the subject of heated debates. In Germany, however, there are sometimes laws and regulations stipulating what color roof tiles a homeowner may have and how often he is required to sweep the sidewalk in front of his or her house. Seen in this light, it's almost a miracle that German officials haven't taken on circumcision much earlier.
In the steering committee of her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel scoffed at the overly zealous judges, saying that Germany was turning itself into a "nation of jokers." But she was also fully aware of how serious the matter is. Reconciliation with the Jews is an important part of government policy for Merkel. And she took the words of Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany seriously. The verdict, Graumann said, could ultimately "make Jewish life in Germany no longer possible."
Germany is also home to about four million Muslims. Hardly anything could alienate them more than a verdict from the state declaring an important element of their religious tradition to be a crime.
Uncharacteristically for Merkel's second term, it isn't her own coalition that is giving her a headache. A majority of parliamentarians from both sides of the aisle -- the far-left Left Party excepted -- support a law clarifying the situation. But despite the political will, practical considerations have complicated the project. As honorable as the intention is to provide legal clarity, implementation is a challenge.
Balancing Two Fundamental Rights
Merkel and Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger are trying to force into a legal framework a tradition that has thus far been protected by social acceptance. But it places two fundamental human rights at odds with each other. Children have a fundamental right to physical integrity. A circumcision is no minor operation, with the German Professional Association of Pediatricians calling it a "form of bodily injury." But the child's right contrasts with those of parents, which include religious matters -- and in this case a ritual that goes back thousands of years and, for Jews and Muslims, is a vital component of their faith.
Balancing these fundamental rights is complicated. Furthermore, Justice Minister Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger is likewise concerned about the debate shifting in an unpleasant direction. Male circumcision isn't the only religious practice based on ancient traditions. Polygamy is another such practice, as is the prohibition of blood transfusions among Jehovah's Witnesses or the compulsory veiling of women in parts of the Islamic world. The question will arise as to why one practice is banned while the other is allowed. "We need a narrowly defined law on the circumcision of boys," says Justice Minister Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. "This has nothing to do with the Sharia debate."
A relatively minor matter triggered hand-wringing. It began when a four-year-old boy named Ali al-Akbar lost a little blood on the evening of Nov. 4, 2010. That afternoon, Dr. Omar Kezze circumcised the boy in his Cologne practice at the mother's request. Kezze is a physician from the Syrian city of Aleppo and has had a private practice in Germany since 1991 and he has plenty of experience with circumcisions. Ali al-Akbar, whose name means Ali the Great, was one of many children whose parents came to Kezze's practice. It was a routine matter.
Kezze gave the boy a local anesthetic and applied the scalpel. The surgery didn't take long. After it was over, the mother took her son to a friend's apartment in the western part of Cologne, where they were staying. The boy was still bleeding at about 7 p.m., so Kezze went to the apartment, applied an additional compress and gave him painkillers. From a medical standpoint, everything "went perfectly," says Kezze today. The urological opinion prepared for the Cologne Regional Court confirms his assertion.
The boy continued to bleed, but according to the friend of the family, it was the mother's fault. She had apparently removed her son's dressing too early, preventing the wound from healing completely. The mother, 39 at the time, and a native of Tunisia, spoke only broken German and was also visually impaired.
'A Provocation to Muslims'
On the second day after the circumcision, she ran into the street in her pajamas, "screaming like a banshee," says the friend. A pedestrian found her "in a state of total confusion" and called an ambulance, which took the mother and her son to the University Hospital of Cologne. Doctors there put the boy under full anesthesia, opened and replaced the sutures, and stopped the bleeding.
Kezze, the doctor who performed the circumcision on Ali, still believes that this was unnecessary. He is upset about the trial, he says, even though he was acquitted, because he finds the ruling shameful, calling it a provocation to Muslims living in Germany. "I wonder if the same thing would have happened if the boy had been a Jew," he says.
Shortly after her son was admitted to the university hospital, Ali's mother jumped from the third floor of the hospital. She escaped with injuries but had to spend "a few days in the nuthouse," as her friend puts it. The friend doesn't know where the family is living today. She says that mother hadn't had any papers for Germany, and that she probably went back to Tunisia with her son. It's unclear, the friend adds, what happened to Ali the Great, who is now 6.
In early 2011, the Cologne public prosecutor's office filed charges against Omar Kezze for aggravated battery. The Cologne District Court refused to pursue the case. But the prosecutor appealed the verdict, and the Regional Court, in a second trial, ruled that the assault was not justified by the mother's consent. Circumcision alters the body of a child "permanently and irreparably," the judges wrote in their argument. But they also acquitted Kezze, arguing that the legal situation was unclear. According to the court, Kezze had acted in an "unavoidable mistake of law" and was therefore not guilty. The prosecutor's office allowed the deadline for an appeal to lapse. "This should never have happened, given the explosive nature of the case," says Jürgen Kapischke, the Cologne chief public prosecutor.
Rolf Dietrich Herzberg, a criminal law professor in the western city of Bochum, agrees with the Cologne court. He considers the removal of the foreskin for religious reasons to be a "violation of the fundamental right to physical integrity." If the ritual is viewed as a measure in the well understood interest of the child, Herzberg argues, it is "a heartless trivialization of what is done to children through circumcision."
- Part 1: Circumcision Debate Has Berlin Searching for Answers
- Part 2: The Difficulties of Writing a Law