(RNS) A court in Cologne, Germany, recently ruled that circumcising young boys represents grievous "bodily harm." The court found that the child’s "fundamental right to bodily integrity" was more important than the parents’ rights. According to the court, religious freedom "would not be unduly impaired" because the child could later decide whether to have the circumcision.
In response to the ruling, some Jews and Muslims who practice circumcision for religious reasons have protested vehemently. Subsequently, German politicians pledged to pass a law to protect ritual circumcision of young boys. Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger even traveled to Berlin to defend Jewish circumcisions, and a complaint against a Bavarian rabbi for performing circumcisions drew the anger of the Anti-Defamation League. The legal and cultural dilemma inherent in the issue makes prompt resolution unlikely.
Most of Germany (and the world) does not circumcise. It is instinctively viewed as harmful. Here's why:
-- Studies show that circumcision causes significant pain and trauma based on various physiological and behavioral changes. Sometimes infants do not cry because they are in traumatic shock. Other effects can include disrupted bonding between parent and child and risk of surgical complications.
-- Imagine yourself being forcefully restrained and having a part of your genitals cut off. Anyone would be traumatized. Studies confirm that infants feel pain more than adults. If you have any doubt about the advisability of circumcision, watch a video of one and trust your feelings.
-- There could be additional unknown negative effects of circumcision that have not been studied. National medical organizations in other countries recommend against circumcision. Some doctors who are aware of the harm refuse to perform circumcisions because of ethical reasons.
Based on medical literature, circumcision removes at least a third of the highly sensitive penile skin. Boys are born with a foreskin for a reason: Studies have shown that it provides protection, enhances sexual pleasure, and facilitates intercourse. One survey showed that circumcised men were 4.5 times more likely to use an erectile dysfunction drug.
In addition, mental health professionals and surveys of dissatisfied men have documented strong feelings of anger, shame, distrust, and grief among some circumcised men. They wish they had a choice. Some of these men also report sexual anxieties, reduced emotional expression, low self-esteem, avoidance of intimacy, and depression.
Most circumcised men seem satisfied because they may not understand what circumcision involves and the benefits of the foreskin. In other words, they're not aware of what they're missing.
Considering the harm, why do some parents feel so strongly about circumcising their sons? Religion (or tradition) is often the expressed reason to circumcise. However, the psychological effects of circumcision trauma play a prominent and unrecognized role in perpetuating the practice. In the U.S., circumcised fathers are about four times more likely to want their sons circumcised (for nonreligious reasons) than fathers who are not circumcised.
The mind is often not aware of this circumcision compulsion. Instead it seeks and finds a reason to defend circumcision. In addition to religious belief, circumcision is often justified by perceived medical benefits or cultural conformity. Choosing circumcision for a son requires minimizing or ignoring the harm, such as believing that infants do not feel or remember pain, and that the foreskin is insignificant and has no purpose.
Beliefs about circumcision will not be easy to change, but questioning circumcision is already happening -- even among Jews. Circumcision is not universal among Jews in North America, South America, Europe, or Israel, and Jewish history includes repeated Jewish opposition to circumcision. The ruling in Cologne creates an opportunity for more questioning.
Germany could set an example for other countries that are concerned about circumcision. Because of political and cultural realities, it is crucial to proceed sensitively as well as courageously.
Fortunately, there is another German law about care of children that can serve as a model. Germany has a law prohibiting corporal punishment of children in the home. A 2000 amendment to the Civil Code states, "Children have the right to a non-violent upbringing. Corporal punishment, psychological injuries, and other humiliating measures are prohibited."
Parents who hit their children generally are not fined or put in jail. Education is the key. German child care law was amended to place a duty on authorities to "promote ways in which families can resolve conflict without resort to force." This approach has resulted in a reduction of the traditional practice of corporal punishment.
A similar strategy with circumcision, including the involvement of appropriate professionals and Jewish and Muslim supporters, would be the best way forward for Germany: oppose forced circumcision of young boys without penalties, educate parents, and have compassion for those of all beliefs as we seek to protect children from harm and create a better world.
(Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., is executive director of the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center and author of "Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective" and "Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma.")