His body, whose choice?
Parents’ and children’s rights have a long been a fierce topic of debate in societies across the world. The argument gets only more intense when the child involved is an infant.
Do parents control their children’s bodies? For citizens of one European nation, that may no longer be up to the family to decide. Instead, their infants’ bodies may be controlled—or protected—by the government.
In Iceland, the small island nation of some 340,000 people, a fierce debate is raging about a surgical procedure conducted since ancient times.
Though an estimated one-third of men worldwide are circumcised, in Iceland, the rate is below 20%. Iceland’s Directorate of Health reports that only 21 boys under the age of 18 have been circumcised since 2006. But given the ethical and legal questions surrounding who has the right to approve and conduct male circumcision, a bill is currently before the Icelandic Parliament that could ban the surgery in most cases.
According to Silja Dogg Gunnarsdottir, a lawmaker who introduced the bill in February, the issue “is fundamentally about not causing unnecessary harm to a child” and is essential because “boys are not able to give an informed consent of an irreversible physical intervention.” Though conversely, one could argue that through this move, the government would be totally revoking a boy’s ability to consent the procedure should he ever wish to be circumcised in the future. Should the bill pass, the penalty of practicing circumcision could be up to six years of jail time.
The lawmakers are basing their intentions on the ethics surrounding this ‘mutilation’ as well as on international medical data. Before Parliament, they made a statement citing the American Academy of Pediatrics journal explaining that “in Western societies, circumcision of healthy boys has no significant health benefits.” They also cited the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no harm.”
Furthermore, the lawmakers believe that male circumcision goes against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
All Around the World
Opinions on male circumcision vary across the world and its cultures, and they are most often based on a family’s religious beliefs. Gunnarsdottir stated, “Everyone has the right to believe in what they want, [but] the rights of children come above the right to believe.”
Most notably, the bill has caused uproar in many Jewish and Muslim communities both in Iceland and around the globe. Approximately 250 Jews and 1,500 Muslims live in Iceland, and local leaders have come forward to defend the tenets of their religion in opposition of the bill. The Islamic Cultural Center of Iceland’s Imam Ahmad Seddeeq said the bill represents “a contravention [of] religious freedom.” Imam Salmann Tamimi warned that “this bill is appealing to people’s emotion, not evidence [….] This is an attack on all religion and especially Judaism.” Even the Bishop of Iceland warned that such a law could result in Islam and Judaism becoming “criminalized religions.”
Around the world, male circumcision remains most prevalent in Muslim countries across the Middle East and Northern Africa, as well as in several Asian countries and the United States.
Though the legality of the procedure has been challenged in numerous nations such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, should Iceland pass the bill, it would become the first country in Europe to ban male circumcision.
The main caveat of the bill is that male circumcision would be banned except for under medical circumstances, meaning that faith, religion, culture, and parent preferences would not be reason enough to have the procedure performed. In most countries where male circumcision is prevalent, it is done for religious and cultural reasons. One exception would be in sub-Saharan African nations, where the World Health Organization recommends male circumcision as a preventative measure against transmitting and contracting HIV.
Regardless of the criticism from religious communities—and despite the fact that it lacks any formal backing from government ministers—over 400 medical experts in Iceland support the bill.
MP Gunnarsdottir also stated that many “victims” of male circumcision have contacted her showing their support. “It’s important for us as a society to discuss this,” she explained. “The experience of many men who have had this done to their body without consent confirms that.” Furthermore, she believes this is about progressive equality. “If we have laws banning circumcision for girls, then we should do so for boys [….] If Iceland backs this, I think other countries will follow.”
In spite of the fierce controversy it is causing, the bill is not expected to gain the necessary majority to pass in Parliament.
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