Published March 2, 2018
A recent piece of legislation seeks to ban male child circumcision in Iceland with a penalty of six years in jail. It’s an issue that’s crossed political boundaries, with politicians from the Progressive Party, Pirate Party, the Left-Greens, and the People’s Party all in favour of it.
If it passes, Iceland will be the first European country to ban the procedure. The debate is heated, especially because the ban will likely only impact a minuscule group, those being the Jews and Muslims.
Unnecessary and risky
“We had had laws since 2005 banning female circumcision. We should have the same for boys,” says Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, a Progressive Party MP and also the spokesperson for the bill. “Circumcision is unnecessary, non-reversible and risky.”
She references a 2013 statement made by the children’s ombudspersons of the five Nordic countries, which called on them to ban male circumcision as they find it goes against the UN Report on the Rights of the Child. While the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) found the health benefits of male circumcision to outweigh the risks—but not enough to recommend universal circumcision—the ombudspersons argued that a baby cannot provide informed consent. It’s an issue of bodily integrity and whether life with circumcision is comparable to life without. Do the benefits that the AAP found, which include reduced risk of UTIs, penile cancer, and some STIs including HIV and syphilis, actually outweigh the risks?
“European doctors say there are no health benefits. More importantly, it shouldn’t happen to children who cannot decide what they want.” Silja compares it to female genital mutilation, “Of course the body parts are different,” she says, “but the reason we put the law in 2005 is not because we had female circumcision. We wanted to prevent it happening here.”
How lethal is male circumcision though? One report claims that 117 circumcision-related deaths occur directly or indirectly yearly in America, which accounts for 1.3% of all male neonatal deaths. That said, these numbers came from research done by Dan Bollinger, who is a known opponent of circumcision. Since then it’s been widely disputed, especially since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not track deaths from infant circumcisions because they are exceedingly rare. In their last mortality report, which occurred in 2010 and details all deaths in the country, the CDC found no circumcision related deaths.
A question of anti-Semitism
Questions of anti-Semitism have been raised. While Muslims do also circumcise—though they are not required to by the Quran—circumcision is typically synonymous with Judaism. For instance, after the 2013 report, a political cartoon in Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet showed a Jewish mother holding a blood-soaked Torah while a Jewish man stabbed a bloody baby in the head with a pitchfork as another cut off his toes with a wrench. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre called the cartoon, “so virulently anti-Semitic it would make Hitler and Himmler weep tears of joy.”
“Any attitudes toward circumcision in Iceland are necessarily reflections of feelings toward Jews,” David Bobroff, a Jewish man living in Iceland told the Grapevine. “And if you think there is no anti-Semitism in Iceland you are, at best, naïve.” He recounts a story about a bicycle shop on Hverfisgata that had a sign which read “Júðar ekki velkomnir” (‘Jews not welcome’). ‘Júðar’ is a term for Jews borrowed from the German ‘Juden’; the actual Icelandic word is ‘gyðingur’. It can be translated loosely as kike, but with darker connotations.
“This incident was covered by the newspaper DV. I never saw the print article but I saw the online edition.” He tells me. “What was informative was reading through the comments below the article on the paper’s website. To be honest, I don’t recall the general tenor of the comments but one stuck with me. It said, in effect, that all the Jews in Iceland should be rounded up, put on a raft, and pushed out to sea. In other words: killed.”
David says that considering the number of circumcisions in Iceland—13 from 2000 to 2016—the ban is rooted in anti-Semitism. “I say ‘rooted in’; not necessarily ‘motivated by’. What I mean is that the seemingly reasonable justifications presented, and likely even believed, by supporters of this bill, can ultimately be traced back to the treatment of the Jew as The Other as has been done for the past two millennia. It is easy enough to propose legislation which on the surface is meant to address some issue when the underlying purpose is to target an unpopular, and minuscule segment of the population.”
“Yes, it feels a little off.” Jewish comedian Aaron Zarabi notes. “Jews are the only people doing it. Maybe we should focus on the important health problems like the Vitamin D deficiency.” He laughs but says that he wouldn’t circumcise his son if he had one.
Silja assures that the ban is not religiously motivated. That said, the legislation specifically mentions Jews and Muslims in the third sentence. Silja does say she has received messages from Jews and Muslims worldwide who support the ban.
A newfound interest
Others note it’s peculiar that Iceland suddenly has a vested interest in the UN Convention despite having broken that convention in the past when it came to the treatment and deportation of asylum-seeking children. This group is much larger than those being circumcised, so some find the government to be picking and choosing from the legislation the one part that heavily targets historically discriminated against religious groups. As well, while the bill is said to protect child body autonomy, there is no proposed legislation protecting intersex children from unnecessary cosmetic surgery on their genitals.
The reasons behind the ban are complicated and upsetting to both sides. Children should have a right to choose what happens to their own body but banning religious practices is a slippery slope, especially when it is practically unenforceable, as any religious family that wishes to circumcise their child could easily fly to a nearby country where it is legal.