Europeans and Circumcision

James McDonald
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A few weeks ago I had an opinion piece published for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Europe’s shudder at circumcision. It was inspired by the Council of Europe’s recent resolution on Children’s Right to Physical Integrity (1952) which likened male non-medical circumcision to female genital mutilation, and my own experience as a Jewish American living in the United Kingdom. I’ve decided to run the risk of appearing foreskin-obsessed by raising some issues again here, because I think this emotive topic can benefit from open dialogue.

Whenever circumcision came up amongst my European friends, I was initially surprised at how uncomfortable people became. Growing up in North America, my circumstance was the norm – uncircumcised was always that alien other, an idea that didn’t quite sit well with one’s stomach. Realising that the unease and aversion was mutual was an interesting discovery. However, it wasn’t until Germany banned circumcision last year that I began to note how deep opinions surrounding the procedure are rooted. The German law unleashed a backlash of international furore, especially from the vocal Jewish community. It has since been repealed but, as Resolution 1952 shows, the underlying ideas remain steadfast in the European conscious.

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I began wondering what would drive democratic governments to assault a key aspect of the religious and cultural practices of so many people – circumcision is central to Judaism and Islam, and is the norm in North America, Africa, the Middle East and parts of South East Asia. While members of those communities take circumcision for granted, see it as a normalised aspect of their society, here in Europe the situation is the complete opposite.

The ‘science’ that opponents of circumcision adhere to sees the procedure as mutilation, as subjecting men to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and inducing a cycle of abuse whereby fathers feel compelled to inflict the same trauma they received upon their sons. This differs drastically from the ‘science’ of the American Academy of Pediatrics that the benefits of circumcision outweigh any negative side effects and that of the World Health Organisation that notes that HIV levels are markedly lower in Africa amongst men who have had the procedure.

When each side has its own ‘scientific’ fact to support its position, there can be no absolute right or wrong. European studies note the low self-esteem and sexual impediments that circumcised men suffer from – something that I have never experienced and something that I have not come across amongst my circumcised North American or Jewish friends. Given this, I cannot help but wonder at how much these psychological effects are rooted in the nature of European society.

Throughout the world there are those opposed to the process – even within North America. There are men who suffer from botched circumcisions, there are even men who undergo medical treatment to reverse the procedure. Yet in America, most circumcised men don’t think twice about their lack of foreskin and it is because of this, I think, that the majority of Americans are perfectly content, confident and happy with their status. On the other hand, in Europe, men who are circumcised are different – either foreign or non-Christian – and repeatedly reminded so. Furthermore, they are told by certain governments and medical organisations that they have been mutilated, that they have been abused.

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I’m not attempting to pass judgement on circumcision and in no way do I pretend to be even remotely qualified to talk seriously about the matter. Based on my personal observations, however, I think that when it comes to my children, my decision will be heavily based on where in the world I’ve settled down. For now, I find the idea of a ceremonial religious circumcision a happy middle ground if I remain in Europe, especially knowing that stigma that my son will likely face if he undergoes the physical procedure. That being said, I don’t know how I’ll feel further down the line. Circumcision is a deeply personal decision, one that can affect the life of a newborn child. Given this, I understand why it is contentious. I think, however, that the pros and cons need to be considered in a global sense, outside the ingrained social attitudes of certain societies. We need to remove the stigma, stifle the shudder, and begin to talk openly about this important issue.

About James McDonald

James is a displaced Brooklynite living in Glasgow. When not holed up in the library studying Scottish History, you'll find him scribbling away in a notebook. Follow him @jamesian7