Circumcision and the rights of the child
Circumcision has long been a cultural and health related practice, possibly dating back 15,000 years. Theories as to its origin include identifying slaves, hygiene, a rite of passage to adulthood and a sign of membership within a group. In recent times it has been suggested as an aid to preventing the spread of HIV in adult men, and in Victorian times as a cure for almost any illness, including epilepsy and insanity. The most widespread reason for circumcision now is a child or infant’s rite of passage into a religion.
One person who opposes circumcision for children and infants is Fredrik Malmberg, Sweden’s Ombudsman for Children. According to Malmberg, circumcision violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, and there is no sound basis for it to be carried out on children. His argument is based on the lack of medical justification, the suffering of the child and their inability to consent.
Supporters of circumcision sometimes claim that there are medical benefits that justify the surgery. According to Malmberg, however, decreasing the threat of STDs shouldn’t apply to children, and the risks such as bleeding and infection outweigh any benefit. A study published in the Danish Medical Journal showed that 5.1% of boys circumcised between 1996 and 2003, aged 3 weeks to 16 years old, had complications following the surgery, and recommended that ‘parents should be counselled and be required to provide informed consent that any health benefits of childhood circumcision do not outweigh the reported complication rate and that therefore they should weigh the health benefits against the risks in light of their religious, cultural and personal preferences.’ Complications also arise with very young children who are unable to be anaesthetized and so must undergo the procedure without any lessening of the pain.
In terms of consent, shouldn’t a parent or guardian be able to consent on behalf of the child in their care? This is usually the case, but when a child is subjected to a painful and potentially unsafe procedure, the matter of human rights comes into play. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child says that ‘States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child...’ In cases where a child’s life is at stake or the matter wouldn’t cause harm to the child, consent is generally given by the adult, but in this case, according to Malmberg, consent should be required: ‘Circumcision without medical grounds (should) only be performed if a boy of the age and maturity required to understand the information consents to the procedure.’
The most common defense of circumcision for children is that of tradition, and a requirement for membership into religious groups. According to Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, ‘States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.” Malmberg further suggests that human rights and medical ethics outweigh tradition.
In his article Malmberg does not say that circumcision should be banned all together. Situations when it is appropriate include a person who is old enough to give their consent and it is carried out in a safe facility, or when it is carried out for strictly medical reasons. When it’s a matter of potentially harmful traditions versus the bodily integrity of children and infants and their human rights, the rights of a child should come first.