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A recent decision by a German court declaring circumcision of boys a criminal act has kicked up a huge controversy. While child activists have lauded the decision, outraged religious groups have termed it as unnecessary interference in their traditions.
A recent court ruling in Germany has been in the eye of storm. The ruling which equated circumcision in young boys to causing grievous bodily harm has outraged religious leaders of both Jews and Muslims who have condemned the decision of the court. They have opined in no uncertain terms that this ruling is an unnecessary intrusion into their traditions of religious faith and have called on the German Parliament to pass a legislation which would protect the rights of religious communities.

The main reason behind circumcision of males is religion. Both Muslims and Jews practice circumcision as a part of their religious tradition. Apart from religion, other common reasons behind circumcision include ethnic, medicinal and various social and cultural reasons.

Circumcision has been prevalent in North and West Africa since a very long time. It is also very common in Asia. There, the practice is undertaken mainly for religious and cultural reasons. However, since the 20th century, circumcision has also become widely prevalent in North America, Europe and New Zealand because of health benefits and social reasons. Even today, almost 76% to 92% of all American men are circumcised. Comparatively, countries like Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and the countries present in Central and South America show a lesser prevalence of this culture (less than 20%).

During circumcision, the foreskin is surgically removed. Circumcision in neonates is simpler compared to the procedure in adolescents and adults. The rate of adverse effects associated with the procedure is also very low (0.2% to 0.4%).

The procedure is believed to have a number of medical benefits. According to WHO, circumcision can lower the risk of contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) by almost 60%. It is also associated with a reduction in the number of urinary tract infections, penile cancers, foreskin infections, a condition called phimosis wherein the foreskin cannot be retracted, and sexually transmitted diseases. Moreover, it is easier to maintain genital hygiene after circumcision.

An infant who has been circumcised carries a 1 in 1000 chance of developing urinary tract infection in the first year of his life compared to a non-circumcised infant who has 1 in 100 chance of developing the condition. However, according to the American Association of Pediatrics, these benefits are not enough to recommend circumcision of all boys.

Apart from the medical benefits, many other parents make their boys undergo circumcision for social reasons. In places where majority of  boys are circumcised, the desire to conform and not to be perceived as different is the single most important reason behind circumcision. It has also been seen that circumcised fathers preferred to circumcise their sons. A survey done in Denver, USA, where the majority of men are circumcised, showed that 90% of circumcised fathers opted for circumcision in their sons compared to just 23% of non-circumcised men.

A few other circumcised men cite perceived sexual benefits as the reason behind circumcision. They believe that removing the foreskin heightens the sexual pleasure and that women prefer to have sex with circumcised men.

People who do not opt for circumcision have their own reasons. Although rare, complications of the procedure include bleeding, infection, cutting the foreskin improperly and inadequate healing. Many people do not go for circumcision out of fear of these complications. Others feel that foreskin is a necessary part of the penis as it protects its tip. An uncovered tip may damage the penile opening and cause problems related to micturition.

Whether people opt for circumcision or not is usually their personal choice. However, the recent ruling against circumcision has brought out its advantages and disadvantages in focus. It has ignited a lot of heated discussions. But one positive has surely emerged out of the whole controversy. And that is that it has made the Muslim and Jew communities come closer and take a common stand against the ruling.

  • “German Ruling Against Circumcising Boys Draws Criticism”, by Nicholas Kulish, published in the June 26, 2012 issue of The New York Times, accessed on July 16, 2012.
  • “Circumcision: Information for Parents”, by American Association of Pediatrics. Last updated on Jan 20, 2012, accessed on July 16, 2012.
  • “The Global Prevalence of Male Circumcision”, An Information Package on male circumcision and HIV Prevention, accessed on July 16, 2012. “Male circumcision: global trends and determinants of prevalence, safety and acceptability”, by World Health Organization. Accessed on July 16, 2012.
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