In the spring of 2018, member of Iceland’s parliament Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir (Progressive Party) proposed a ban on male circumcision. A similar law was passed in 2005 banning circumcision of girls in Iceland. If the proposed bill becomes law, a penalty of six years in prison will be the consequence of “removing sexual organs in whole or in part”. Religious leaders are upset and calling the proposal an attack on their beliefs. 1
What is male circumcision?
Circumcision is one of the most common surgical procedures in the world, although rates have been declining in the US. 4
Circumcision rates vary greatly around the world. From 0% to 99.9%, male circumcision is most prevalent in countries with a strong dominance of Judaism and Islam.
- Afghanistan 99.8%
- Puerto Rico 0.14%
- Russia 11.8%
- Oman 87.7%
- Australia 26.6%
- Israel 91.7%
- Iran 99.7%
- Belize 0.1%
Male Circumcision in Iceland
In Iceland, the percent of male circumcision is only 0.1%. 5 The proposed ban is actually supported by five different political parties. Addressing religious concerns, MPs believe the “rights of the child” outweigh the “right of the parents to give their children guidance when it comes to religion”. The bill would allow children to decide on their own once they are old enough to consent to the procedure. 6
One-third of Icelandic doctors support the ban. 400 doctors have signed an open letter stating “performing circumcisions other than for medical reasons was at odds with their Hippocratic oath to do no harm”. 7
Although some Israeli news organizations are reporting that the bill has died, that is not true. It was put on hold for the summer recess and to be studied more. 8
Rates of circumcision are naturally very low in Iceland. There are only 1000 Muslims living on the island country. Official statistics on Jews does not exist but estimates range between 50-100. There is no synagogue in the capital city of Reykjavik. This small religious population feels targeted by the proposed ban on circumcision. Proponents of the bill argue boys can still have circumcision by choice once they reached an age of maturity to decide for themselves. 9 The procedure can be more complicated when performed later in life but proponents of waiting say this is warranted over the pain caused to newborn males. 10
Two years ago, doctors in Denmark called for action defining 18 as the legal age to make an informed decision. They stopped short of calling for an outright ban, but they did get a requirement that all circumcisions be reported to Denmark’s national patient registry11
U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child
There is a further concern the surgical procedure violates the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights, although the UN Convention does take “due account of the importance of the traditions and cultural values of each people for the protection and harmonious development of the child”. 1213 It is important to note that the United States had signed the U.N.’s Convention the Rights of the Child but has not ratified or is under any obligation to follow it. 14
The Nordic Ombudsmen for Children specifically explains:
As Ombudsmen for Children and pediatric experts we are of the opinion that circumcision without medical indications in conflict with Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which addresses the child’s right to express his/her own views in all matters affecting him/her, and Article 24, point 3, which states that children must be protected against traditional practices that may be prejudicial to their health. In 2013, The UN Human Rights Council also encouraged all countries to ban harmful practices that compromise the integrity and dignity of the child and are prejudicial to the health of boys and girls. We see it as fundamental that parents rights in this context do not prevail over children´s right to bodily integrity. The best interests of the child must always be a primary consideration, even if this can reduce the rights of adults to perform religious or traditional practices. 15
The European Convention on Human Rights does state:
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.16
Both sides of the proposed ban could use this as evidence of rights.
Disagreements on Benefits and Risks of Circumcision
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP advocates that circumcision has health benefits, as does the World Health Organization and US Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention. 17 Specifically, the AAP states:
Evaluation of current evidence indicates that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks; furthermore, the benefits of newborn male circumcision justify access to this procedure for families who choose it. Specific benefits from male circumcision were identified for the prevention of urinary tract infections, acquisition of HIV, transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, and penile cancer. Male circumcision does not appear to adversely affect penile sexual function/sensitivity or sexual satisfaction.18
The 2012 AAP policy statement has been criticized for being influenced by cultural standards rather than evidence.
Seen from the outside, cultural bias reflecting the normality of nontherapeutic male circumcision in the United States seems obvious, and the report’s conclusions are different from those reached by physicians in other parts of the Western world, including Europe, Canada, and Australia. In this commentary, a different view is presented by non–US-based physi- cians and representatives of general medical associations and so- cieties for pediatrics, pediatric surgery, and pediatric urology in Northern Europe. To these authors, only 1 of the arguments put forward by the American Academy of Pediatrics has some theoretical relevance in relation to infant male circumcision; namely, the possible protection against urinary tract infections in infant boys, which can easily be treated with antibiotics without tissue loss. The other claimed health benefits, including protection against HIV/AIDS, genital herpes, genital warts, and penile cancer, are questionable, weak, and likely to have little public health relevance in a Western context, and they do not represent compelling reasons for surgery before boys are old enough to decide for themselves.19
Obviously of great concern to those that oppose circumcision is the fact that the procedure is often performed on infants without anesthetic. This pain can alter the brain and psychological development. 20
Several medical associations have come out against routine male circumcision finding no health benefit or medical necessity. 23. Using the terms genital mutilation rather than female circumcision conders up cultural outrage, yet bias in the Western and Middle Eastern world should be examined when it comes to boys.
- https://www.cbsnews.com/news/circumcision-rates-declining-health-risks-rising-study-says/2 It is usually performed on young infants and involves removing part or the whole foreskin of the penis. 3http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/3/e756
- Canadian Paediatric Society
- Royal Dutch Medical Association
- The Royal Australasian College of Physicians
- British Medical Association
- German Association of Pediatricians
Should Iceland be the first county to ban male infant circumcision, it would be a bold move towards children’s rights. Female genital mutilation is largely recognized as a barbaric practice. 30 countries have banned the practice. 22https://www.reproductiverights.org/document/female-genital-mutilation-fgm-legal-prohibitions-worldwide