A Norwegian proposal to offer male circumcision in public hospitals has encountered fierce opposition from medics and children’s organizations, even though the procedure affects less than one percent of boys in Norway.
Male circumcision is legal in Norway, but it is not available on the national health service. Now the centre-right government has presented a white paper to allow public hospitals to perform the procedure.
"The bill represents a practical solution that balances the concerns of the religious minorities in Norway with the needs of regulation of this procedure,” Bent Hoie, Norway's Minister of Health, told DW.
"We have seen in the last years that there have been some cases with serious complications because children have been circumcized outside the health system,” he said.
Two years ago a baby boy born to Muslim parents died following a badly-performed circumcision at a private clinic in Oslo. Others have suffered serious side-effects.
The proposed legislation has been fiercely criticized by many people in largely liberal and secular Norway. Critics say children's rights should come first, even if it means curtailing certain religious freedoms.
"I think it's a fundamental error to bring this procedure into the national health service. Children should have the right to be protected from such surgery,” said Jenny Klinge from the opposition Centre Party. She wants a ban on male circumcision, similar to the existing ban on female genital mutilation.
"It would show the whole world that we value children's rights so highly that we want to protect them from these kinds of operations. The parliamentary assembly of the European Council has adopted a resolution on the physical integrity of children, and there they also included male circumcision as a problem,” she said.
Jews would 'cease to exist'
Male circumcision is seen by most Jews as crucial to their religion, and most Muslims also perform the operation. Yet Norway's Jewish and Muslim populations are relatively small, and the procedure is carried out on some 2,000 boys a year only - less than 1 percent of all Norwegian boys.
Despite these small numbers, the religious minorities have come out strongly in support of the government's proposal and in opposition to calls for a ban.
"It is a religious commandment and it's written in the first book of Moses. It is specified that the brit milah [the male circumcision], the pact between Abraham and God, should be performed on all male babies when they're eight days old,” explained Ervin Kohn, President of the Jewish community in Oslo.
"It's an existential question for a Jewish community, so if we were to have a ban on brit milah in Norway, the Jewish community would eventually cease to exist,” he added.
Muslim community leaders have also welcomed the chance to have the procedure performed in public hospitals, and have warned against religious intolerance among those proposing a ban.
While the new legislation is likely to secure majority support in parliament, the opposition to male circumcision is considerable - also among Norway's Nordic neighbors.
"All the Nordic ombudsmen have the same view: that circumcision of boys should not be done until the boy is old enough to decide himself if is something he wants to do,” Anne Lindboe, Norway's Ombudsman for Children, told DW.
"It could be done more safely than it's done today, and that's very important, of course, but taking it into the public health service doesn't help. It's still a procedure that's done to a baby that can't consent,” she said.
The Norwegian Medical Associations and sister organizations in Denmark and Sweden also oppose the circumcision of boys. Anne Lindboe feels an age limit could be a good compromise between religious freedom and the rights of children.
"With a lower age limit of 16 you can still do the procedure and do a ritual that's very important to you, but you just have to wait until the boy gets a little bit older. And at the same time we know that it's not done against the boy's own will,” said Lindboe.
The Jewish community says an age limit would be unacceptable, because their scriptures stipulate the circumcision must be done on the eighth day after birth.
A delicate matter
The row over male circumcision has highlighted faultlines in Norwegian legislation. Religious freedom and children's rights are both protected by law.
"If you look at it from a Norwegian principled, ideological type of view, it is clean cut,” said Frithjof Jacobsen, a social commentator with the Oslo-based daily VG.
"No adult has the right to manipulate young people's bodies. On the other hand, this is sort of 'principle meets reality:' if we were not to allow circumcision, what would happen to the Jewish population? It would be a type of religious discrimination. So it's a delicate matter for the government,” he said.
The Norwegian parliament is due to vote on the proposed legislation to bring male circumcision into the public health service later this year.