Who is in Charge of One’s Penis?

Debate on ritual circumcision rises after baby went into coma after circumcision

– By Tatiana Kondratenko & Domenique Wybo

DENMARK – On May 20th a baby went into a coma after he was circumcised, because the doctor gave the baby too much anesthesia. This reopened the debate on putting an age limit on ritual circumcision, a surgery that is medically unnecessary. 

The baby was being circumcised at a private clinic close to Copenhagen. The doctor gave the baby 8 ml of anesthesia, instead of the maximum amount of 3 ml. Shortly after the surgery, the baby started to have trouble breathing. He was taken to the hospital where he went into a coma.

This triggers the debate about whether there should be an age limit on ritual circumcision. The discussion has been going on for several years, but has become more prominent in the last year.

Human rights organizations and medical associations are in favor of an age limit, while religious societies don’t understand why this should be banned. They have been practicing these rituals for thousands of years.

“Healthy children shouldn’t be cut into”

Intact Denmark is a human rights organizations that focus on genital integrity. Chairwoman Lena Nyhus explains why they decided to found an organization like this:

“We want both boys and girls protected from the ritual circumcision until the age of 18. Right now it’s only girls. We feel that children should be protected from being cut into if they’re healthy.”

“The one in charge of the penis is the one it is attached to”, Lena Nyhus, chairwoman Intact Denmark

Intact Denmark was founded in April 2013, shortly before a study on the health benefits of newborn male circumcision of the Danish Medical Journal was published.

"The one in charge of the penis is the one it is attached to", Lena Nyhus, chairwoman Intact Denmark

"The one in charge of the penis is the one it is attached to", Lena Nyhus, chairwoman Intact Denmark

“You don’t cut into a healthy child”

The study used data from 315 boys who had undergone ritual circumcision in the period 1996-2003. (note that complications until December 2011 were listed). 5,1% had significant problems after the operation. They recommend a strong focus on high surgical standards, in order to avoid complications.

Rights of the Child

Last September, the Nordic Ombudsmen for Children and pediatric experts released a statement that said that circumcision is against all fundamental ethical and medical principles.

“We are of the opinion that circumcision without medical indication is in conflict with Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which addresses the child’s right to express his/her own views in all matters concerning him/her, and Article 24, point 3, which states that children must be protected against traditional practices that may be prejudicial to their health.”

They also encourage the age limit.

Ancient traditions

In the Jewish society, circumcision is one of the main traditions. Boys are being circumcised on the 8th day after birth, that has been the tradition for over 3500 years. It was written in the first book of Mozes.

Bent Lexner, chief rabbi of the Copenhagen Synagogue, clarifies why this ritual is so important:

“Many Jews feel like this is something they have to do.  It’s a very strong sign of identity, even more than religion.”

He admits that today a lot of Jewish families are not very strict in following all of the traditions, but “Brit Milah (circumcision) is more or less the last thing they leave behind”.

“Circumcision is one of the last things Jews leave behind”

In the Muslim community circumcision is practiced by nearly all males. Boys can be circumcised from soon after birth until the age of 13.

Mohamed Hassan, PhD fellow at Aarhus University explains:

“Despite its absence from the Koran, it has been a religious custom from the beginning of Islam.”

The practice is considered a prophet’s tradition and is very important in Islam. It is about the rite of passage. Circumcision is considered a ritual cleansing for boys. 

 “I felt humiliated”  

Hadi Riazi, vascular surgeon from Iranian descent, was three years old when his parents decided to circumcise him. He remembers this as a quite embarrassing ritual:

“I still remember how I was laying on the operation table. My father and cousins were looking at me, I was scared and confused. They didn’t explain to me that we were going to a doctor that was going to circumcise me. I didn’t understand what was going on and why. I felt humiliated.”

“Nobody asked me about my opinion”, Hadi Riazi

Hadi got in contact with Intact Denmark over social media. Before he knew about this organization, he didn’t really think about it, until he realized that there were some people talking about this issue.

"Nobody asked me about my opinion", Hadi Riazi

"Nobody asked me about my opinion", Hadi Riazi

 “My problem was that nobody had asked me about my opinion. My parents just decided for me. I don’t know what it would be like if I wasn’t circumcised, that right was taken away from me”, he says disappointed.

No reasons to talk

Meanwhile, not everyone holds the view that this discussion is relevant. Osman Öztoprak, Member of the Council of a small Turkish mosque in Aarhus, doesn’t understand why it is so important for people to forbid it:

“Why don’t the politicians use the public time to discuss something else. Why is it so essential for them? Isn’t there something more important to talk about?”

“There are so many other important issues to discuss”

Danish Jewish writer Lene Andersen agrees with him: “I really think that people have to care more about some more important questions. From her point of view the circumcised children live in a family that deeply cares about their children.”

“There’s other children that live under worse circumstances.”

Lena Nyhus refutes this argument. For her this issue is of great importance: “Any surgical procedure involves risks. Risks for a child that’s not sick to begin with and has to live with the consequences forever without even haven chosen for this optional procedure. Also, there are always complications to their sexuality: the sensitivity from the normal penis is reduced by 50% since it removes all the functions of the foreskin.”

Öztoprak doesn’t agree. According to him, it is well known from a meta-analasys study that the early circumcision on males is associated with a reduced incidence of invasive penile cancer.

“Parents decide for their children”

Who has the right to make decisions about the baby’s body? That is another argument both parties do not agree upon.

On the one hand, parents make decisions for their children. For instance, choose which school their children go to or what they will eat.

But on the other hand, do parents have the right to cut a piece of their healthy child away, if this can never be undone?

For Lena Nyhus it is very clear: “It’s a question about genital autonomy. The one in charge of the penis is the one it’s attached to. It’s not more complicated than that.”

Criminalization for religion 

In Denmark, the current legislation allows ritual circumcision, but it’s not being taken care of in public hospitals. Doctors only do circumcision on medical basis. Ritual circumcision has to be done on a private basis.

Lars Henning-Olsen, pediatric surgeon at the Urology Department at Aarhus Hospital, is not worried about the conditions under which the surgery happens:

“If you go under the skin, it is a surgery by law. You are not allowed to do any surgery if there is no doctor around. The people who do this are quite qualified.”

When asked what will happen when they ban it, he answers: “It will be done anyway. You’re just going to criminalize a lot of people.”

Goodbye to Jewish community 

Lene Andersen stayed out of this debate for many years, until she actually witnessed a circumcision in the synagogue. To hear more about Andersen’s experience, click here:

“I really think people should accept that there are people that have other life styles, rituals and traditions. People should figure out what the best practice it and then teach it to the medical doctors.”

“Fifteen minutes later the baby was already sleeping on the rabbi’s shoulder”

Also she thinks that there is a lack of understanding from the people not involved in the Jewish or Muslim culture. There’s not enough understanding why it’s necessary.

According to her, the ban would be a “goodbye to the Jewish community in Denmark”.


As stated in the statement from the Nordic Ombudsmen, they would like to see a respectful dialogue between all involved parties on how to best ensure that boys will be able to use their influence on the issue of circumcision.

Öztoprak states that the Turkish community doesn’t want to debate due to a lack of communication. “If they don’t ask us about our opinion and just talk, I don’t see this as a serious matter. If it was, they would include all the parties on this issue.”

The people in favor of a ban were being accused of being anti-multicultural.

Hadi strongly disagrees: “What we actually are saying has nothing to do with no special religion, we are talking about the right of children.”

Too little space for discussion or is this issue too one sided? The other parties also feel threatened in their culture. As Lexner said “Danes do not like other people’s traditions”. Read more about that here.

Protecting Human Rights or the Way to Monoculturalism

 The discussion about banning ritual circumcision divides Danish society into human rights defenders and those who see it as a threat to multiculturalism and religious freedom in Europe.

– By Tatiana Kondratenko and Domenique Wybo

In an effort to protect the human rights, it is forbidden for parents in Denmark to use any physical violence on their children. The fact that parents are not allowed to smack or slap their children but can still cut a part of the baby boy’s genitals without any medical reasons, has led NGOs, Danish Medical Association and some Danish parties to think about imposing a ban on circumcision – one of the fundamental religious rituals for Muslims and Jews.

Chief Rabbi of Denmark, Bent Lexner, a man who has performed more than one thousand circumcisions in the country, is sitting in the small green backyard of The Copenhagen Synagogue fifteen minutes before the afternoon prayer.  He is dressed in an ordinary shirt and trousers but one special sign – a black kippah, is covering his head, – clearly showing his Jewish identity.

“Circumcision in Judaism is one of the main rituals. It is already written in the first book of Moses  that Abraham and after him who is a Jew, but only men, should be circumcise after 8 days or on the 8th day of his life. This is something that Jews had done for 3500 years”, Bent Lexner said.

"Circumcision a very strong sign of identity", Bent Lexner, chief rabbi Copenhagen

"Circumcision a very strong sign of identity", Bent Lexner, chief rabbi Copenhagen

 He shrugged his shoulders and presumes that the intention to protect children’s rights is only the tip of the iceberg, whereas the background from where this kind of debates, perhaps, has come from is that “350 000 muslims are coming to Denmark”.

Decision-making Dilemma

Although circumcision in Islamic culture does not have a strict age limit as for Jews, Danish Muslims could perceive the ban as an attempt to keep their culture out of Denmark and make them feel like outsiders inside the country they live in.

A chairman of a small Turkish mosque in Aarhus, Osman Öztoprak, says that he can not accept the arguments against ritual circumcision because he has never met circumcised Muslims who would disagree with the decision their parents once made.

In his view, such restriction would defy internationally recognized religious-freedom standards established by United Nations treaties and certainly it will contradict the freedom of religious practice in Europe.

“Parents make decisions for their babies and it is naturally because they know what is better for them,” he says, “when Danes take their babies to church to baptise, they do not wait until the child will grow up and will be able to decide by himself whether he wants to visit the church or not. And of course they do not have to wait for that.”

The main argument for pro-ban side of the conflict is that circumcision without any medical reasons is the matter of genital autonomy and any operation involves risk. In this case, parents put at risk lives of healthy children.

“The values of religion are not in a circumcision of the penis. It is in the hummus”

The founder of Intact Denmark, the human rights organisation that focuses on genital integrity, Lena Nyhus, is surprised every time when she hears talks about anti-semitism or xenophobia of which she is accused:

“As one debate said, the values of religion are not in a circumcision of the penis. It is in hummus, it is in introduction to all other values and traditions,” she admits. “A number of Jews all around the world have started a new tradition called “bochelom bothime”, a ceremony in which they welcome the child and give him a name but without cutting the penis.”

According to her, the legislation might be seen within a very short span of years and  “today more than 70% of the population in Denmark want to see the age limit and only 12% do not want to see the legislation”.

A New Challenges for Human Rights

If the ban will get accepted, religious groups will not be able to perform circumcision on newborns in Denmark, but there might be also sanctions if parents, being Danish citizens, have circumcised the baby abroad. How could it affect the future of Muslims and Jews?

"Religious families will be forced to find another place for living", Soren Holst

"Religious families will be forced to find another place for living", Soren Holst

“Perhaps, religious families will be forced to find another place for living”, says Søren Holst, an associate professor from the department of Biblical Exegesis, Copenhagen University.

This is not the first case where old religious rituals clash with the modern western view of humanity inside Denmark.

Last February, the government has brought in a ban on the religious slaughter of animals: for meat to be considered kosher under Jewish law or halal under Islamic law, the animal must be conscious when killed. On the one hand,  both communities are still free to import meat killed by their preferred methods, on the other – “no animals have in fact been slaughtered without pre-stunning in Denmark for the past 10 years”, The Guardian noted.

“It says that it must not happen in Denmark but allow importing the meat. Precisely, the same thing has been said about circumcision. Some of those who are against it, said that that we can not make a law that prohibits people from going abroad and having their children circumcised in the country that has different laws”, Holst said.

From his point of view, it would not make a large difference to the number of children who are circumcised but “it is more a way to show yourself that we are very humane and careful about human rights”.