Denmark is considering a ban on circumcisions—and testing its religious freedom

Not quite ready to consent.
Not quite ready to consent.
Image: Reuters/Michaela Rehle
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Denmark just inched closer to becoming the first nation to ban circumcision. On Jun 1., a controversial citizens’ petition to outlaw circumcising anyone under the age of 18 reached its 50,000th signature, a threshold that requires the Parliament to debate and vote on the measure.

The country has long been a pioneer of socially liberal reforms. For example, it was the first to pass environmental lawslegalize pornography, and recognize gay unions. However, on this particular issue, the socially liberal position is far from clear, forcing politicians to choose between parents’ rights and those of their children.

For the ban’s advocates, the argument in favor hinges on consent—specifically, the inability of children to give informed consent to having their genitals cut. The group that launched the petition, Intact Denmark, argues that boys “ought to be allowed to grow up with their body intact,” and, once they’re 18, decide for themselves whether to be circumcised. The petition proposes tweaking a current law punishing female genital mutilation (pdf, p.11) with up to six years in prison to include males as well.

Critics, however, say the ban would limit the religious freedoms of Danish parents. Of the 1,000 to 2,000 circumcisions performed in Denmark each year, most are on Jewish and Muslim boys, for whom the procedure is a religious ritual.

Unsurprisingly, the petition has left many Jewish and Muslim leaders aghast. If passed into law, the ban essentially “criminalizes” Danish-Jewish parents, says one Jewish group (link in Danish). “The proposal takes as a starting point that Jews are child molesters,” Dan Rosenberg Asmussen, head of the Jewish Community in Denmark, told the New York Times (paywall). Waseem Hussain, an imam at the Danish Islamic Center, added: “Next up for discussion could be the right to wear a veil, to pray, to read the Bible or go to church on Sundays.”

Denmark’s liberal politicians tend to sympathize and the petition is being given little chance of passing, with the ruling Liberal Party opposing the ban. In addition to concerns about religious freedoms, party leaders worry that the ban could alienate key international allies—including the United States, where as many as three-fifths of men are circumcised (though the rate of newborn circumcision is on the decline there), Israel, and majority Muslim nations, according to the foreign minister (link in Danish). Indeed, the US embassy has flagged concerns about the threat to religious freedoms, reports the Times.

Allegiances are less obvious than they might seem, though. For instance, one of the ban’s most vocal advocates—Naser Khader, a Conservative Party member of Parliament—is himself Muslim. As he explained to Intact Denmark in a YouTube video, the Islamic rationale for circumcision stemmed from hygiene, which has advanced quite a bit over the last 1,400 years. (Similarly, the health benefits once attributed to the procedure are, in the industrialized world at least, no longer very compelling.)

Still, Khader says he had always assumed he would follow in the tradition of his ancestors in circumcising sons—until 2004, when he and his partner welcomed a newborn boy. “When Hannibal was born, however, and I held him in my hands physically, I thought it would be a pity to expose him to such an unnecessary pain.”

The Times notes that there is no deadline for the Parliament to take up the debate or vote, but nothing is likely to happen before the fall.