(New York, NY) – The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) held a debate on circumcision earlier today in Strasbourg, France in accordance with last year’s resolution recognizing circumcision as a violation of bodily integrity and calling for public discussion on the matter. Medical experts, religious leaders and activists were amongst those who gave testimony today.
Two films were screened preceding the Council of Europe’s debate on circumcision. The first film, It’s a Boy by Victor Schonfeld, is highly critical of circumcision, and follows a Jewish circumcision ceremony performed in London.
The second film was produced by the Israeli government—which has observer status—arguing that circumcision is an integral part of religious life for Jews. It was directed by Israeli Knesset member Nachman Shai who was present to express outrage at the 2013 PACE resolution recognizing male circumcision as a violation of bodily integrity. Mr. Shai said, “Circumcision has many medical advantages, and almost no medical disadvantages if done by experienced people, particularly if done at an early age.”
The previous chairperson of the Parliamentary Assembly, Marlene Rupprecht, began the discussion, saying, “Children’s rights are human rights. One basic right is physical integrity of a human being.”
Dr. Bernard Lobel, a French urologist, denied the harms of circumcision, saying, “I’ve never heard people complain about circumcision.” He touted the (debunked) benefits of circumcision, including protection against HIV/AIDS infections and UTIs.
He was followed by Mesrur Selçuk Silay, a Turkish doctor who argued in his presentation that the benefits of circumcision were proven, the harms non-existent. At one point he showed a slide of boys attending a forced circumcision party in Turkey, stating, “At the end of the day it’s one of the happiest days of their lives.”
Then, Dr. Wolfram Hartmann—President of the Professional Association of Child and Youth Doctors in Germany, which last year testified to the German Parliament in favor of a ban on circumcision—stated in his presentation that circumcision is a mutilation, and spoke about seeing firsthand the damages caused to young boys:
“Advocates of circumcision trivialize this form of mutilation which can lead to long-term physical or psychological complications.
“Accusing challenges to circumcision as being ‘anti-Semitic’ is misplaced. We do not take religion, race, sex... to intervene in the duties to our patients. I will not use medical knowledge to violate human rights or civil liberties.
“Young boys have the same legal claim to genital integrity as girls. Religious freedom ends where the physical integrity of a minor is impinged upon.”
“We are inflicting unrecognized harm. This harm is greater than not practicing circumcision. Many Jews in America and Israel support this view.
“First, there is the harm caused to infants. This is the reason there are so many studies to find a better way to perform circumcisions to cause less pain.
“Some infants do not cry because they go into shock. Other behavioral changes include altered sleep levels, disruption in feeding and bonding. Many studies have been performed on the detrimental effects of disrupting bonding. There’s an increased pain responses six months later. These are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Multiple studies describe the sexual harm. Circumcision removes about 1/3 of the erogenous tissue, including several kinds of specialized nerves. Resulting in thickening and desensitization. Foreskin is a double layer, movable sleeve, 35 cm2. One man described sex before and after circumcision as going to ‘Seeing in black and white instead of seeing in color.’”
Christian Bahls—director of MOGiS e.V., an organization supporting victims of sexual abuse—stated, “As a trauma victim, I am deeply sympathetic with the feelings of people who feel troubled and anxious by the fact that this debate even takes place at all,” in an attempt to engage in a rational debate with those who came to defend circumcision. Describing what he’s learned through his work, he said,
“The men who have approached my organization have seen their circumcision as a mutilation... Of course men who have problems with circumcision will not report problems to a pro-circumcision urologist: they just do not want to get laughed at.”
Harald Winterling—with Intaktiv, an activist organization against genital mutilation—noted how victims are speaking up. “We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “99% of the harm is in adult life, in the loss of sexual sensitivity and function.”
Dr. Mattias Schroeder—a child neurologist and pediatrician from Germany—said, “Every week I see children who have temporary or lasting complications from circumcision at the child urology unit of a university hospital.”
Mr. Schonfeld was present in the audience and criticized the hypocrisy of religious freedom proponents.
In response to the Israeli film presented at the beginning of the session, Mr. Schonfeld said,
“I quote, ‘Israel will reject with all our might and force any attempt to stop circumcision.’”
“Circumcision is forced on children. Doctors across Europe are saying the harm is undeniable. The Israeli documentary denies any claims of pain.
“Freedom of conscience is not taken into account. Parents who choose not to circumcise are bullied. A woman in Israel was fined for not circumcising her son. This speaks volumes about the arrogance attached to the custom of circumcision.”
Many Jewish and Muslim individuals and leaders spoke about how important circumcision is to their religion, way of life, and existence, denying any harms of the practice, and arguing its purported health benefits. Many amongst them were outraged, often making references to the holocaust, and insinuated that the debate was motivated by anti-Semitism. One audience member even argued that the 2013 PACE resolution gave the go-ahead for bans to be put in place in Scandinavia.
Rupprecht closed the debate by stating, “It is the rights of the child that are foremost in our minds... I ask you to understand what motivates us.”
PACE is expected to vote soon on a new resolution initiated by the Israeli government that would protect the religious rights of parents to circumcise.
Full video of the debate is available here: