Der Spiegel and the cutting question of circumcision

 The issue of circumcision has returned to Germany's newspapers -- and the manner in which the controversy is being discussed suggests that while the press is aware of the issues of personal autonomy generated by state intervention into the private sphere, the religious liberty (or perhaps the religious sensibility) issue is missing from the story.

The English-language section of Der Spiegel ran a news analysis story on 27 Sept 2013 entitled "Cutting Controversy: German Court Sets New Circumcision Rules". It also ran a story in the German-language Panorama section entitled: "Kinder müssen vorher aufgeklärt werden" that reported a court in Hamm had ruled that parents and doctors must first discuss the procedure with a boy before he is circumcised.

The issue of circumcision of boys in Germany carries with it the baggage of the Nazi era and is fraught with social, cultural and religious issues. The issue attracted international prominence in 2012 when a Cologne court ruled that religious circumcision of boys constituted "bodily harm". Der Spiegel noted that court held that as a matter of law:

a child's right to self-determination superceded his parents' right to freedom of religion. The decision prompted widespread uproar, particularly among Jewish and Muslim groups and as far away as Turkey, Israel and the United States. Germany's Central Council of Jews called it "an unprecedented and dramatic intrusion on the right to self-determination of religious communities." Ali Demir, the chairman of the Islamic Religious Community, argued that circumcision is a "harmless procedure, a tradition that is thousands of years old and highly symbolic."

Ultimately, the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, passed a law allowing the religious procedure. According to the new rules, specially qualified members of religious communities can perform the operation in the first six months of a boy's life, after which it must be performed by a physician.

Last week's ruling clarified the new law.

According to the judges, the mother has an inherent right to decide whether to have the procedure performed as long as the child cannot make that decision himself. However, they also ruled that the parents and doctors are obliged to inform the child "in a manner appropriate to his age and development" about the procedure and be mindful of his wishes. In the case of the 6-year-old, this did not occur. Parents must also be informed about the procedure ahead of time.

The court ultimately found the 31-year-old mother's justification for the procedure to be unsatisfactory. Since the family had Germany as its primary place of residence, visits to Kenya were rarely possible, and the child was baptized as a protestant. Moreover, they concluded, a procedure could cause psychological damage to the child, since the mother said she couldn't accompany her son to the circumcision.

We hear the who, what, when and where, but not the why. There is a hint of it in the report the "child was baptized as a protestant." (Why the small "p"? What does that signify?) But there is nothing more.

Last December I compared the coverage of the circumcision debate in the Bundestag by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and NBC. I wrote:

Turn to the NBC story written by Donald Snyder you can see the difference between adequate and great reporting. The article entitled “Circumcision to remain legal in Germany” provided the same political background and offering quotes from a number of MPs. It also addressed the religious freedom question from the perspective of Judaism and Islam. But in the same space as the New York Times it did a better job in conveying why this issue was important to supporters and opponents of circumcision.

While the Times noted the infrequency of circumcision in Germany, NBC took this angle further.

German society is highly secular. Religion is generally viewed as a relic from the past. This is especially true in what was formerly Communist East Germany, where atheism was the official doctrine for 44 years.

“The basic sentiment here is anti-religious,” said Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of Internationale Politik, a foreign policy journal published by the German Council of Foreign Affairs. “And Germans throw overboard anything that has to do with tradition.”

According to Tempel, the Cologne ruling was not a deliberate attack on Islam or Judaism but showed a total misunderstanding of how important circumcision is to both religions. TNS Emnid, a German polling organization, found in a July 2012 survey that 56 percent of Germans agree with the Cologne ruling.

Deirdre Berger, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, a Jewish advocacy organization, said that the Cologne ruling can be traced to a body of law and medical literature that has been accumulating over the past decade. This school of thought, based on little scientific evidence, holds that circumcision does irreversible physical damage and causes emotional trauma, a view held by the German Association of Pediatricians, which has called for a two-year moratorium on circumcisions. By contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization endorse circumcision for its medical benefits, particularly in fighting the spread of HIV in Africa.

What is missing from Der Spiegel's story is this background detail. The article is written from a German secularist perspective. This may not be such a very great crime as Der Spiegel is a German secular magazine -- yet its story is incomplete, and insular. It lacks the self awareness found in quality journalism that acknowledges its own presuppositions, but also attempts to explain and engage other world views.

Perhaps it is too much to expect insight from a news story. But one should see balance -- and that we do not see in this piece.

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