Danish Jewry is gearing up to contest an expected ban on circumcision, following last month’s landmark German court ruling, as parliament looks to debate the health risks surrounding the religious ritual.
In echoes of the Cologne decision, which ruled that the practice “causes bodily harm and should only be performed on males old enough to give consent”, Socialist MP Jorgen Arbo-Baehr of the Enhedslisten Party called on the Danish parliament to explore implementing a ban, insisting “people should decide for themselves whether or not they want to be circumcised”.
The Jewish community is likely to be more heavily affected by any such ban, as Judaism demands male infants be circumcised eight days after birth. By contrast, Muslim circumcision practices vary according to family, religious practice and country. Denmark is home to approximately 8,500 Jews and has a 210,000-strong Muslim population, with a total of 5.5 million citizens.
Danish Chief Rabbi Bent Lexner slammed talk of a ban, telling daily Kristeligt Dagblad it would be “equivalent to saying to those that have practiced Judaism in Denmark for 400 years that they may as well leave”.
Although there has been intermittent debate in the country over the supposed risks posed by the religious ritual, stemming from a 2003 government-commissioned report by the Children’s Ombudsman which classified circumcision as a violation of children’s rights, media accounts of bad practice and mutilation have ramped up in the aftermath of the Cologne ruling.
Recent figures medal insurance group Patientforsikringen, further claimed that between 1996 and 2012, there were 65 reported injuries as a result of male circumcision.
Lexner insists, however, that of the 1,000 male infants he has circumcised, none of them have experienced any complications. Jorgen Thorup, a professor of paediatric surgery at Rigshospitalet hospital in Copenhagen claims there are common inherent risks to the patient, including “bleeding, infection and excessive cutting”.
Whilst no political party has yet proposed a bill to ban legislation, the majority of groups have called for a debate on the health, social and legal consequences of a ban, with left-wing groups more firmly advocating restricting the practice.
The Jewish Congregation of Copenhagen has responded by publishing a document defending the Jewish medical approach to circumcision as well as the significance of the religious ritual, referencing the first biblical covenant between man and God and its centrality to the continuation of Jewish life. However, the precedent set by Cologne is to hold the medical implications and supposed infringement of rights up to speculation, negating arguments about free religious practice.
Any move to ban circumcision in Denmark, it’s feared, could cause a domino effect on close Scandinavian neighbours Sweden, Finland and Norway. Sweden has already seen extensive debate on the issue for some tile, leading its 20,000-strong Jewish community to lobby for a special exemption for Jewish circumcision practice to be preserved on male babies of less than two months old.
The legislation, however, does rule that all Jewish practitioners must hold a license from the country’s health board and all circumcisions by religious practitioners, or mohels, must be performed in the presence of a qualified nurse or doctor. In February, the Swedish government rejected further calls for an outright ban on the practice.
Norwegian and Finnish government bodies have also classified the practice of circumcision as a violation, and Norway’s tiny Jewish community of 700 has sought to lobby for similar legislation to their Swedish counterparts. Finland has also seen an attempt to draft a bill banning circumcision this summer fail to garner sufficient parliamentary support.
A flurry of legislative activity which occurred across Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Cologne ruling appears to have settled somewhat, after Austrian Justice Minister Beatrix Karl gave legal clearance to doctors in the Vorarlberg province to resume religious circumcisions earlier this month. The governor of the region has previously advised doctors to cease performing the ritual or risk facing criminal charges, but following investigation by legal experts, the practice was secured for the country’s 500,000-strong Muslim population and 10,000 Jews.
A week later, Zurich Children’s Hospital, one of the first to have reacted to the German ruling lifted its ban on religious circumcisions, declaring the practice would resume on a case-by-case basis and subject to parental written consent.
Last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right government pledged to take quick action regard the Cologne ruling to secure the religious rights of Jews and Muslims to circumcise their baby boys. Following negative global publicity of the case and its implications for neighbouring EU countries, German daily Bild quoted Merkel as saying failure to act on the issue would make Germany “a laughing stock among nations”.
Conference of European Rabbis President Pinchas Goldschmidt has described the German decision as “one of the gravest attacks on Jewish life in the post-Holocaut world”.