Iceland Set to Criminalise Male Circumcision

By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim

A bill currently before the Icelandic parliament proposes to make it a criminal offence punishable by up to six years in prison to circumcise, or arrange for the circumcision of, a boy for non-medical reasons.

Circumcision is the surgical removal of the foreskin that covers the tip of the penis. Most circumcisions are performed for cultural or religious reasons, rather than medical ones.

Broad support in favour

The proposed law is broadly supported by politicians and the general public.

It is being tabled by Silja Dogg Gunnarsdottir, an MP from the centre-right Progressive Party who says it is a ‘child protection issue’ that will ensure boys are protected in the same way as girls, after the nation banned female circumcision in 2005.

“His body, his choice, until he can decide if he wants to undergo the procedure himself”, says Dogg Gunnarsdottir says:

Circumcision is one of the oldest medical procedures around and is considered important in many religions – particularly Judaism and Islam – with around a third of men believed to be circumcised globally.

Attack on religious freedoms

Jewish and Muslim clerics in Iceland are fighting the legislation on the ground that it discriminates against people of non-Christian faiths, and is an attack on religious freedom.

They have also expressed concerns a ban would take the practice underground, or people will choose to travel to countries where it is permitted.

The Jewish and Muslim faiths have the backing of Christian leaders, with the Bishop of Iceland, Agnes Sigurdardottir, saying it could turn Jews and Muslims into criminals. The Catholic Church has also labelled the proposal an attack on religious freedoms.

Religious leaders have said that attempts to compare male circumcision to female genital mutilation are misleading. They point out that the partial or complete removal of female genitalia can make sexual intercourse difficult, painful and undesirable, and can also cause medical problems. By contrast, they say, circumcision is a minor procedure with very few risks or long term consequences.

Benefits of male circumcision

While circumcision rates around the world have declined since the 1960s, medical experts advise that the practice has health benefits, including general hygiene, a reduced risk of sexually transmitted diseases and penile cancer.

Male circumcision can also prevent some inflammatory conditions. A recent study by the University of Sydney’s Dr Brian Morris concluded that the benefits of male infant circumcision exceeded the potential risks by 200 to one.

Children’s rights

However, the European states are increasingly treating circumcision as a question of children’s rights.

However, none of these countries have criminalised or otherwise banned the practice.

In 2012, Germany passed a law making it an offence for anyone other than a trained professional to perform the procedure. The measure was taken after a court ruling that circumcision “permanently and irreparably changed” a child’s body and took away their right to decide their own religious affiliation.

In Australia, ‘cosmetic’ circumcision is banned in public hospitals, although it is permitted in private ones.

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