Ritual slaughter, religious male circumcision and public opinion: a YouGov poll

The Jewish Chronicle has recently published the findings of a survey that it commissioned from YouGov on attitudes to religious slaughter of animals (shechita) and religious circumcision (brit milah): you can see the full results here. Asked whether they support or oppose a ban on shechita, 45 per cent of respondents supported a ban, 27 per cent were against and 28 per cent were undecided. When asked about “male circumcision for religious reasons”, 38 per cent supported a ban, 35 per cent opposed it and 27 per cent were undecided. Perhaps most significantly, 41 per cent of 18–24 year-olds would ban both shechita and ritual circumcision.

According to the report in the Jewish Chronicle, the most striking difference in attitudes emerged in relation to the political inclinations of those polled: 71 per cent of those who said that they would vote for UKIP supported a ban on religious slaughter and 51 per cent supported a ban on ritual circumcision. In comparison, the results for Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour voters were 48, 40, and 36 percent, (religious slaughter) and 38, 37, 40 percent (circumcision) respectively, though these responses were accompanied by a large proportion of “don’t knows”. .

The report quoted a Reform rabbi, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, to the effect that the results:

“… indicate a worrying intolerance, not only towards the specific rituals of shechita and brit milah, but possibly may indicate a more widespread intolerance towards Jews and other minorities in the UK. I am particularly concerned by the statistics of the UKIP voters and I assume this pattern of rejecting Jewish religious rituals would also be mirrored if a similar question were to be posed about Muslim rituals”.

On the other hand, David Graham, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, was quoted as cautioning against reading too much into the findings of the poll:

“While this may be indicative of a general negative attitude towards these Jewish traditions, that conclusion cannot be drawn from this YouGov poll. If people are asked whether they support or oppose a ban on an issue the seed of doubt is already sown in the respondent’s mind, before he or she has had a chance to consider what they are being asked. It is hardly surprising a majority opts for a ban”.

Comment: We have discussed the issue of religious male circumcision in a previous post in light of the recent controversy surrounding the issue in Germany – a controversy that was resolved by the passage of an amendment to the Civil Code in December 2012. Even though it has never been put on a statutory footing, the legality of religious male circumcision under the common law in England and Wales and (it would appear) in Scotland seems clear; and we have suggested that, should the matter ever be argued in Strasbourg, the European Court of Human Rights would be likely to grant a wide margin of appreciation to states parties on the issue. Muslim and Jewish ritual slaughter, however, is rather more controversial.

The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 allow a statutory exception from the normal prohibition on slaughter without pre-stunning in order to accommodate the religious requirements for the production of halal or kosher meat products. However, in June 2003 the Farm Animal Welfare Council published a Report on the Welfare of Farmed Animals at Slaughter or Killing, Part 1: Red Meat Animals recommending, inter alia, that slaughter without prior stunning should be banned in all circumstances. The then Government published its draft response for consultation on 1 April 2004, following which ministers declared that they would  reject that advice in relation to ritual slaughter on the grounds of “respect for the important beliefs of minority religions in this country”: see House of Commons European Standing Committee A (2003–04) 20 April 2004: Protection of Animals during Transport, Ben Bradshaw MP at cc 12–13. the Government subsequently confirmed that rejection in its formal response published in March 2005, as follows:

Recommendation 201: Council considers that slaughter without pre-stunning is unacceptable and that the Government should repeal the current exemption.

Response: Do not accept. The Government does not intend to ban the slaughter of animals without prior stunning by religious groups.

We agree with FAWC that the scientific evidence indicates that animals that receive an effective pre-cut stun do not experience pain at the time of slaughter. The balance of current scientific evidence also suggests that those cattle which receive an immediate post-cut stun are likely to suffer less than those that do not. However we recognise that this latter conclusion is disputed.

The Government is committed to respect for the rights of religious groups and accepts that an insistence on a pre-cut or immediate post-cut stun would not be compatible with the requirements of religious slaughter by Jewish and Muslim groups. However, others, particularly consumer and welfare groups, oppose slaughter without prior stunning and do not wish to eat meat that has not been stunned prior to slaughter. Meat from these animals can find its way onto the ordinary meat market but is not identifiable by consumers at the point of sale. As part of the wider process of review and consultation on labelling meat, the Government will work with consumer and industry groups to consider whether this problem can be addressed through a voluntary system of labelling, bearing in mind that an early EU agreement on meat labelling according to slaughter method is unlikely.”

Subsequently, the Government has consulted on welfare of animals at slaughter and its response to the consultation process is currently awaited.

And there, for the moment, the matter rests: the suspicion, however, is that whatever the conclusion of the Government’s latest consultation this is not a controversy that will simply go away.

As implied in the Government’s response to the FAWC recommendations, one of the underlying concerns seems to be that meat from animals slaughtered without pre-stunning can find its way into the general food chain; and those who object to kosher or halal slaughter on moral grounds are concerned that they may be eating its products unawares. As recently as June 2010 the European Parliament voted by 559 to 54 for the compulsory labelling of meat from animals slaughtered without pre-stunning; but – as predicted by the UK Government in its response to the FAWC – the proposal did not find favour with the European Council and Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 25 October 2011 on the provision of food information to consumers makes no mention of it.

More generally, the recent row about equine DNA being discovered in processed beef (and, for that matter, traces of pork as well) has made consumers much more suspicious about issues of traceability and inspection of meat products. (There was also a recent news-item alleging that some unscrupulous producers were substituting cheaper varieties such as coley for cod and haddock in manufactured fish products – though there was no mention of seahorse DNA.)

As to the YouGov poll, David Graham makes a very fair point about questions on controversial issues sowing a “seed of doubt” in the respondent’s mind: after all, most people have never in their lives set foot in a slaughterhouse of any kind – which, as it happens, I have done on a couple of occasions – and probably have only the haziest notion of what any kind of animal slaughter entails. Nevertheless, Laura Janner-Klausner’s suggestion that the results of the poll may indicate a growing intolerance towards Jews and other minorities must at least give one serious pause for thought.

Some might argue that the 71 per cent support for a ban among UKIP supporters could conceivably be part of a general “Little Englander” attitude to life that can sometimes drift imperceptibly into a religious and racial intolerance that has nothing whatsoever to do with nationality or immigration status. There is certainly a legitimate debate to be had about the balance to be struck between animal welfare considerations and religious requirements – but that debate needs to be conducted openly and without any hidden agendas on either side.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Ritual slaughter, religious male circumcision and public opinion: a YouGov poll" in Law & Religion UK, 7 April 2013, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2013/04/07/ritual-slaughter-religious-male-circumcision-and-public-opinion-a-yougov-poll/