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Sunday, July 1st, 2012

Behind Germany’s Ban on Circumcision

circumcision/ © uwimages -

The circumcision “ban” that happened in Germany this past week has stirred up a lot of bad feelings and accusations. A court in Cologne settled the case of whether a doctor was right or wrong circumcising a little boy. See here, here or here.

The interesting part is that a lot of newspapers use the word “ban” in their headlines.

I know, of course, that publishers like an extreme headline. It usually means more readers will click and read the article. I also think that for a mainstream news channel in the U.S., Germany is really far away and sort of in a different reality in which all sorts of things could happen. But I don’t think these thing matter here. What matters here is cultural difference. Let me explain.

My definition of “ban” (and Wikipedia agrees) is that a ruling political body decrees that something can not be done. A court, though, is not an executive organ! A court does not make laws. It interprets existing law.

This specific court, while acquitting the doctor, voiced the opinion that current law could be interpreted in a way that would prevent parents from circumcising their children unless there were medical reasons. They suggested
current law might interpret circumcision for religious reasons as causing minor bodily harm. They acquitted the doctor because “with current law being uncertain, it is believable that he thought he did right.”

In German culture, this means the court was opening a discussion. They stated an opinion and other courts and possibly society will now digest and discuss it, eventually coming to some conclusion. What that conclusion will be is unknown at the moment.

A “ban” is nowhere to be seen!

Outside Germany

Knowing how things work in the U.K. (and similarly in the U.S., I presume), I can understand why people jump to that conclusion though.

If a court issued the same ruling  in the U.K., insurance companies would immediately send letters out to all doctors stating that with a ruling like this and the ensuing uncertainty, they would not be able to insure any circumcisions as of right now. In effect, a similar ruling in the U.K. would actually stop circumcisions pretty much immediately.

In reality, it wouldn’t, of course, because parents would just find other ways. Just like women find other ways of aborting a pregnancy when abortion is not legal. But it would stop legal circumcision.

Not so in Germany, where insurances companies are much less fidgety and it is entirely possible that no other court will follow the Kölner Landgericht at all. Some doctors or hospitals may decide to stop providing circumcisions (I hear a hospital in Berlin might have done so), but that would be an individual decision, and they wouldn’t be forced into it.

I don’t want to judge systems here, all I want to say is this: don’t fall for the “ban” rhetoric. It sounds great in a headline, especially because it’s Germany versus the Jews. But it is simply not true.

© 2012, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsOlga   |  Sunday, 01 July 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks for explaining this! You are so right: it is not a ban. It’s just the beginning of a discussion. Also, the legal system in Germany works differently from the system in the US, that’s why it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. And your point about illegal circumcision/abortion is painfully true- if done in the wrong setting , both could be dangerous.

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