BERLIN - In the debate in Germany over circumcision, you often hear people say jokingly that if cutting the foreskin off a baby boy’s penis for religious reasons is outlawed then piercing little girls’ earlobes shouldn’t be allowed either. But that’s just the scenario that may be shaping up. After a Cologne court ruled in June that circumcision was illegal, a Berlin judge is examining whether or not ear-piercing should be as well.
The issue has come up in conjunction with a suit against a tattoo studio by the parents of a three-year-old girl whose ears were pierced at the studio. A judge must rule on whether the parents should be punished for having sought the piercing, and whether the studio can be prosecuted for not having refused to perform the procedure. A decision is expected by August 31.
The parents of the girl said in their suit that the child cried from an inordinate amount of pain as her ears were being pierced. During a medical examination three days later the child was still manifesting a traumatic reaction.
Many doctors argue that the same holds true for circumcision: although it’s just a small cut, Jewish and Muslim boys who undergo the procedure suffer not only physically but psychologically from it.
The issue of circumcision could be coming up before a German court again shortly as the prosecution in the city of Hof in Bavaria completes an inquiry against Rabbi David Goldberg who conducts ritual circumcisions some 30 times a year.
Sebastian Guevara Kamm, a doctor in the central German city of Giessen, has filed a complaint against the rabbi, accusing him of inflicting bodily harm. According to Kamm, Rabbi Goldberg does not have a medical license to perform the operation, and performs it without anesthetic in medically unsuitable conditions.
The prosecution in Hof is aware of the explosive nature of the issue, and lead prosecuting attorney Gerhard Schmitt has said that he wants to "examine all aspects" before proceeding. He stated that the material was very complex due to its considerable political importance and that the inquiry could thus stretch out over a matter of weeks.
Just how complicated the issue is became clear on Thursday in Berlin when circumcision was discussed by the German National Ethics Council. The Council agreed unanimously (albeit conditionally) that the religious practice could not be forbidden, yet Council member Reinhard Merkel, a legal scholar in Hamburg, stated that it was "bizarre" that religious communities were allowed to define when and how a human body could be injured.
Merkel spoke of a "legal policy crisis" that entailed weighing a child’s right to bodily integrity against religious requirements. In the case of the Jews, “indebtedness” to them on the part of the world community should allow for a “special law” with regard to the practice, he said.
Cologne-based Council member Wolfram Höfling, an expert in constitutional law, considered the issue in terms of parental rights, saying that if parents for religious reasons consider the ritual to be in the best interests of the child then this should be respected, particularly as circumcisions have been performed millions of times without complications or traumatization.
Jewish Council member Leo Latasch and Muslim representative Ilhan Ilkilic both stressed the importance of the ritual in their respective religions.
But despite differences of opinion, the Ethics Council had, said its Chair Christian Woopen, come to the conclusion that circumcision should be allowed albeit under qualified medical supervision, with anesthetic, and provision of comprehensive information to the parents beforehand about possible risks of the procedure.