A German court in Cologne recently ruled that circumcising young boys represents grievous bodily harm. The court found the childs “fundamental right to bodily integrity” was more important than the parents rights. According to the court, the religious freedom “would not be unduly impaired” because the child could later decide whether to have the circumcision.
In response to the ruling, some Jews and Muslims who circumcise for religious reasons protested vehemently. Subsequently, German politicians pledged to pass a law to protect ritual circumcision of young boys. The legal and cultural dilemma inherent in the issue makes prompt resolution unlikely. Most of Germany (and the world) does not circumcise. It is instinctively viewed as harmful. Lets take a look at this harm.
Effect of Circumcision on the Infant
Studies show that circumcision causes significant pain and trauma as measured by heart rate, respiratory rate, stress hormone level, and behavioral changes. Other effects include disrupted bonding between parent and child and the risk of surgical complications. Sometimes infants do not cry because they are in traumatic shock.
Furthermore, there could be additional unknown negative effects of circumcision that have not been studied. National medical organizations recommend against circumcision. Some doctors who are aware of the harm refuse to perform circumcisions because of ethical reasons.
For many, this information is not a surprise. Imagine yourself being forcefully restrained and having a part of your genitals cut off. Anyone would be traumatized. Studies confirm that infants feel pain more than adults. Some parents who have watched the circumcision of their son have been very distressed and regret their decision. If you have any doubt about the advisability of circumcision, watch a video of one.
Sexual and Psychological Harm of Circumcision
Based on medical literature, circumcision removes the five most sensitive locations on the penis, at least a third of the highly sensitive penile tissue. The adult foreskin is about twelve square inches, a double layered movable sleeve, and has specialized nerves. Studies have shown that it provides protection, enhances sexual pleasure, and facilitates intercourse. A survey showed that circumcised men were 4.5 times more likely to use an erectile dysfunction drug.
In addition, clinical reports and surveys of men have documented strong feelings of anger, shame, distrust, and grief about having been circumcised. They wish they had a choice. Sexual anxieties, reduced emotional expression, low self-esteem, avoidance of intimacy, and depression are also reported.
Question men who say, “I’m circumcised and I’m fine.” Most circumcised men seem satisfied because they may not understand what circumcision involves and the benefits of the foreskin. They may not be aware of certain feelings and their connection to circumcision, or they may fear disclosing these feelings. The more men know, the more likely they are to be dissatisfied.
Motivation to Circumcise
Considering the harm, why do some parents feel so strongly about circumcising their sons? Religion (or tradition) is often the expressed reason to circumcise. However, the psychological effects of circumcision trauma play a prominent and unrecognized role in perpetuating the practice. Psychologists know that those who are traumatized have a compulsion to repeat the trauma on others. For example, those who are abused as children are more likely to abuse their own children. In the U.S., circumcised fathers are more than four times more likely to want their sons circumcised than fathers who are not circumcised.
The mind is often not aware of this circumcision compulsion. Instead it seeks and finds a reason to defend circumcision. For example, in addition to religious belief, medical benefits or cultural conformity may be claimed. Some Jews believe that all Jews circumcise. In fact, circumcision is not universal among Jews in North America, South America, Europe, or even Israel, and Jewish history includes repeated Jewish opposition to circumcision. In recent years, numerous Jewish press articles have questioned circumcision. Circumcision is not required for Jewish identity, and Jewish boys who are not circumcised are accepted by others.
Of course, in addition to the false beliefs in support of it, choosing circumcision for a son requires minimizing or ignoring the harm, such as believing that infants do not feel or remember pain, and that the foreskin has no purpose.
The Way Forward
Beliefs about circumcision will not be easy to change. The ruling in Cologne creates an opportunity by bringing attention to the practice. Germany could set an example for other countries that are concerned about circumcision. Because of political and cultural realities, it is crucial to proceed sensitively as well as courageously. Fortunately, there is another law about care of children that can serve as a model.
Germany has a law prohibiting corporal punishment of children in the home. A 2000 amendment to the Civil Code states, “Children have the right to a non-violent upbringing. Corporal punishment, psychological injuries, and other humiliating measures are prohibited.” Parents who hit their children are not fined or put in jail. Education is the key. German childcare law was amended to place a duty on authorities to “promote ways in which families can resolve conflict without resort to force.” This approach has resulted in a reduction of the traditional practice of corporal punishment.
A similar strategy with circumcision, including the involvement of Jewish and Muslim supporters, would be the best way forward: oppose forced circumcision of young boys without penalties, educate parents, and have compassion for those of all beliefs as we seek to protect children from harm and create a better world.
Ronald Goldman, Ph.D. is executive director of the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center in Boston. He is a psychological researcher, lecturer, and author of Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective and Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma. Dr. Goldman’s work includes hundreds of contacts with parents, children, and medical and mental health professionals. Dr. Goldman may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.