Male circumcision, widely regarded as harmless, still violates the bodily autonomy of children and carries many medical risks.
Ahead of a vote in the Icelandic parliament, a bill to outlaw male circumcision has ignited controversy across Europe, with conservative religious figures – Jewish, Islamic and Christian faith leaders among them – rallying together in common cause. Their catch-cry, ironically, has been “religious freedom.” This is the very freedom they seek to deny to others by imposing the indelible mark of their faith upon the genitals of their children.
All children – females, males, and intersex – are born with inalienable human rights, including freedom of religion. But as noted by a United Nations’ Special Rapporteur in 2015, “Having a circumcised penis is a mark of the parent’s religion, not of the child’s freely chosen religion.” The UN report went on to conclude that non-consensual circumcision for religious reasons is incompatible with the rights of the child: “To argue that parents’ freedom of religion enables them to consent to the irreversible cutting of their child … negates the child’s freedom to consent—or refuse consent—to such an action once they have the capacity to make an informed decision.”
A similar conclusion was reached by the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children and paediatric experts, who in 2013 issued a joint statement to the effect that non-therapeutic, non-consensual male circumcision violated important human rights as well as foundational principles of medical ethics, “not least because the procedure is irreversible, painful and may cause serious complications.”
The rights violations, as well as medical complications of male circumcision, are indeed serious. As noted by the International NGO Council on Violence Against Children in its 2012 report:
Until recently, male circumcision has generally been challenged only when carried out by non-medical personal in unhygienic settings without pain relief. But a children’s rights analysis suggests that non-consensual, non-therapeutic circumcision of boys, whatever the circumstances, constitutes a gross violation of their rights, including the right to physical integrity, to freedom of thought and religion and to protection from physical and mental violence. When extreme complications arise, it may violate the right to life. It is reported that male circumcision can result in numerous physical, psychological, and sexual health problems during the surgery, afterwards, and throughout adulthood, including haemorrhage, panic attacks, erectile dysfunction, infection (in severe forms leading to partial or complete loss of the penis), urinary infections, necrosis, permanent injury or loss of the glans, excessive penile skin loss, external deformity, and in some cases even death.
Such an analysis is at odds with claims made by the pro-circumcision lobby. These claimed are exemplified by organisations such as Milah UK. A spokesperson for this group responded to Bill 183 (currently before the Icelandic parliament) by stating: “There is no recognised long-term negative impact on the child for the rest of his life. Millions of men—Jews as well as others—are circumcised around the world, and are unaffected in their everyday lives by having undergone the procedure.”
The fact that circumcised men do not (often) complain, however, should not be construed as a sign of religious, cultural, or medical beneficence. Media focus on the undeniable evils of female genital mutilation (FGM) has tended to obscure the lifelong adverse effects of male circumcision,  which encompass a diverse range of somatic and “psychosexual sequelae.” Except by the unethical or the unenlightened, these known harms of routine male circumcision are not to be lightly dismissed, or—worse still—transmogrified into dubious medical “benefits” such as HIV prophylaxis.
Legislating for human rights is politically treacherous under the best of circumstances. Legislating for children’s rights is even more precarious. Bill 183 is a step in the right direction: towards genital autonomy for all children, regardless of gender or their parents’ religion. While Iceland debates the merits of substituting “children” for “girls” in its anti-FGM legislation (in force since 2005), the rest of the world can only hope that the bullies of patriarchal religion and culture, as well as vested interests of medical biotechnology, are kept at bay. Redressing this gender imbalance within the law is long overdue.
A survivor of neonatal genital mutilation, Chris Coughran holds advanced degrees in English and the humanities.
 Dominique Mosbergen. “Iceland’s proposed ban on male circumcision alarms religious leaders.” Huffington Post. 20 February 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/iceland-male-circumcision_us_5a8a8794e4b00bc49f45bf26
 United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. “Call for Adequate Recognition of Children’s Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief.” Child Rights International Network. November 2015. https://www.crin.org/sites/default/files/attachments/call_for_adequate_recognition_of_childrens_right_to_freedom_of_religion_or_belief.2.pdf
 “Let the boys decide on circumcision: Joint statement from the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children and pediatric experts.” https://www.crin.org/en/docs/English-statement-.pdf
 Violating Children’s Rights: Harmful Practices Based on Tradition, Culture, Religion or Superstition. A Report from the International NGO Council on Violence against Children (2012) pp. 21–22. https://www.crin.org/en/docs/InCo_Report_15Oct.pdf
 Harriet Sherwood. “Iceland law to outlaw male circumcision sparks row over religious freedom.” The Guardian. 18 February 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/18/iceland-ban-male-circumcision-first-european-country
 Richard Duncker. “90 percent of circumcised men are content to have been altered—I am of the other 10 percent.” iNews. 26 February 2018. https://inews.co.uk/opinion/ninety-per-cent-circumcised-men-content-altered-i-ten-per-cent-feel-otherwise/
 See, e.g. George Denniston et al. (eds) Genital Cutting: Protecting Children from Medical, Cultural, and Religious Infringements (New York: Springer, 2013).
 Tim Hammond and Adrienne Carmack (2017). “Long-term adverse outcomes from neonatal circumcision reported in a survey of 1,008 men: An overview of health and human rights implications.” International Journal of Human Rights 21.2, pp. 1–30.
 Gregory J. Boyle, Ronald Goldman, J. Steven Svoboda and Ephrem Fernandez, “Male Circumcision: Pain, Trauma and Psychosexual Sequelae.” Journal of Health Psychology 7.3 (2002) pp. 329–43.
 Brian D. Earp, “A Fatal Irony: Why the ‘Circumcision Solution’ to the AIDS epidemic in Africa may increase transmission of HIV.” Practical Ethics (22 May 2012) http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2012/05/when-bad-science-kills-or-how-to-spread-aids/
 Mike Buchanan. “An email from Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, Icelandic MP.” Justice for Men and Boys. 20 February 2018. https://j4mb.org.uk/2018/02/20/an-email-from-silja-dogg-gunnarsdottir-icelandic-mp/
 Dena S. Davis. “Male and Female Genital Alteration: A Collision Course with the Law?” Health Matrix: The Journal of Law-Medicine. 11.2 (2001) pp. 487–570. https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com.au/&httpsredir=1&article=1562&context=healthmatrix