A serious campaign is underway in Scandinavia to ban the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys. A Danish doctors’ association says that, unless medically indicated, circumcision is a kind of child abuse. A Swedish medical association recommends setting the minimum age for the procedure at 12 and requiring the boy’s consent. Last September, the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children issued a joint statement declaring non-therapeutic circumcision of boys a violation of international human rights law. Although for now no country seems ready to outlaw the practice, surveys suggest large numbers of Scandinavians would favor a ban.
To put it mildly, a ban on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys would cause some hardship for Jews and Muslims. At the very least, parents who wished to have their sons circumcised for religious purposes would need to have the circumcisions performed outside their countriesassuming a ban on circumcisions would not also prohibit parents from transporting children for such purposes. Most likely, a ban would simply cause Jews and Muslims to leave Scandinavia in large numbers. In fact, opponents of the ban allege that is its goal.
I doubt that religious bigotry, as such, has much to with itthough anti-Muslim sentiment, at least, is on the rise in Scandinavia, as in much of Europe. Rather, what we’re seeing is a clash of values between a secular worldview that has little patience for traditional religious expression, and the followers of the traditional religions themselves. To put it bluntly, the secular human rights community finds it increasingly difficult to take seriously the arguments traditional religion puts forward, especially when sex is somehow involved.
Here’s an example. Last week, The Copenhagen Post ran an op-ed by Morten Frisch, a doctor and sex researcher who favors a ban. Circumcision, Frisch writes, is problematic not only because it violates a boy’s bodily integrity when he is too young to consent. (Actually, any medical treatment would present that problem). What’s really bad is that circumcision decreases sexual pleasure later in life. “To most Europeans,” Frisch writes, “circumcision is an ethically problematic ritual that is intrinsically harmful to children: every child has the right to protection of his or her bodily integrity and the right to explore and enjoy his or her undiminished sexual capacity later in life.”
What about the fact that Judaism and Islam have required male circumcision for millennia? Isn’t that a factor to consider? You might think that practices that have lasted thousands of years come with some presumption of validity, even if you disagree with them. Millions of people across time have thought such practices important, even sacred. Frisch summarily dismisses these concerns. “Religious arguments,” he writes, “must never trump the protection of children’s basic human rights. To cut off functional, healthy parts of other people’s bodies without their explicit and well-informed consent can never be anybody’s rightreligious or otherwise.”
Now, I don’t know whether exploring one’s undiminished sexual capacity really qualifies as an international human right nowadays; I don’t follow the literature too closely. And this is the first I’ve heard that male circumcision leads to to a decrease in sexual pleasure later in life (I’m not speaking of female circumcision). But let’s assume what Frisch says is correct. The fact that he so impatiently dismisses any hardship a ban would cause traditional religious communities is striking. There is, it seems, simply nothing to be said for traditional practices that violate contemporary norms in this context; the sooner we get rid of them, the better. Frisch’s essay, like the proposed ban itself, is another indication that the clash between religious tradition and secularism is heating up, and that secularism is in little mood to compromise.