December 9, 2021

Iceland dumps proposed ban on male circumcision

Jewish and Muslim communities alarmed

After a three-month national debate and lobbying from all over the world, a parliamentary committee in Iceland has shelved a proposed ban on male circumcision. The penalty for performing or organising a circumcision would have been a sentence of up to six years in prison.

The ban was proposed in February by Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir of the Progressive Party in the Althing, Iceland’s parliament. She described her bill as an attempt “to protect the interest of the child”. Circumcision of females had already been banned, she reasoned, why not of males? “Every individual, it doesn’t matter what sex or how old… should be able to give informed consent for a procedure that is unnecessary, irreversible and can be harmful,” she declared. “His body, his choice.”

Incredibly, Ms Gunnarsdóttir failed to consult Iceland’s tiny Jewish and Muslim communities and did not anticipate the uproar that ensued. “I didn’t think it was necessary to consult,” she told The Independent. “I don’t see it as a religious matter. Jews are welcome in Iceland. But this is about child protection and children’s rights. That comes first, and before the religious rights of the adult.”

Icelanders were divided. Polling showed that 50 percent favoured the bill and 37 percent opposed it, with the remainder undecided. Local religious leaders campaigned against it.

Some inconsistencies emerged. Intersex children are routinely operated upon, but without their consent. The bill cited the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but Iceland has sometimes deported children born in Iceland without respecting their rights.

The bill appears to have sunk because lobbyists successfully stoked fears of religious discrimination. “The impact of this would be felt far beyond Iceland’s borders,” said a letter from the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. “This move would make Iceland the first and only European nation to outlaw circumcision. While Jewish and Muslim populations in Iceland may be small, your country’s ban would be exploited by those who stoke xenophobia and antisemitism in countries with more diverse populations.”

However, two bioethicists writing in the Oxford University blog Practical Ethics, Lauren Notini and Brian D. Earp, suggested that religious reasons for male circumcision are probably not justifiable: “Parental religious rights are not unlimited”. They argue that:  

Non-therapeutic genital cutting deprives the child, and the adult they will become, of the opportunity to remain genitally unmodified (or intact). Plausibly, the person whose ‘private parts’ will be permanently affected by the cutting should get a chance to weigh in on whether that is what they desire, in light of their longer-term preferences and values …

However, the less clear it is that a bodily encroachment is in fact in the child’s best interests—considering the child’s strong interest in being able to autonomously make important self-affecting decisions in the future—“the more likely it is that the child’s bodily integrity rights are being impermissibly violated.”

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