On 1 October, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe endorsed a report of its Social Affairs and Health Committee addressing the issue of children’s right to physical integrity and voted in support of a resolution that called upon Member States to undertake a series of actions in this area. The Assembly’s decision relating to the circumcision of young boys drew widespread condemnation from the Jewish Community and on 8 November, the Jewish Chronicle ran with an analysis by Jonathan Fisher QC of the content of the report and the possible implications of the CoE decision.
Any religious group should take seriously any such threat of proposed action against its basic tenets and practices; but it is important to place these in the context of: the information that has been presented to the decision-makers; what actions they have agreed to; and how these actions will be implemented nationally and Europe-wide. These may be summarized as follows:
- This is an initiative of the Council of Europe, not the European Union – a distinction which the JC headline-writer and some commentators seem quite unable to grasp. The text of Jonathan Fisher’s article does not, of course, make the same mistake and the strapline must have made him wince.
- The underlying reference document is the report of Ms Marlene Rupprecht, the rapporteur of the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development, Doc. 13297, the text of which was adopted by the Assembly on 1 October 2013 (31st Sitting).
- The provisional version of Resolution 1952 (2013) states [para.2] that
“The Parliamentary Assembly is particularly worried about a category of violation of the physical integrity of children, which supporters of the procedures tend to present as beneficial to the children themselves despite clear evidence to the contrary. This includes, amongst others, female genital mutilation, the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons, early childhood medical interventions in the case of intersex children and the submission to or coercion of children into piercings, tattoos or plastic surgery” [emphasis added].
- The provisional version of Recommendation 2023 (2013) of the Parliamentary Assembly calls on Member States to: examine the prevalence of the issues identified; initiate awareness-raising measures for each; provide specific training, including on risks of and alternatives to certain procedures. It also calls on Member States to take the following measures with regard to specific categories of violation of children’s physical integrity:
- publicly to condemn the most harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation, and pass legislation banning these;
- clearly to define the medical, sanitary and other conditions to be ensured for practices which are today widely carried out in certain religious communities, such as the non-therapeutic circumcision of young boys;
- to undertake further research to increase knowledge about the specific situation of intersex people;
- to promote an interdisciplinary dialogue between representatives of various professional backgrounds, including medical doctors and religious representatives, so as to overcome some of the prevailing traditional methods which do not take into consideration the best interest of the child and the latest state of medical art; and
- to raise awareness about the need to ensure the participation of children in decisions concerning their physical integrity wherever appropriate and possible, and to adopt specific legal provisions to ensure that certain operations and practices will not be carried out before a child is old enough to be consulted.
We have been here before – and very recently indeed. We have previously posted on the criminal prosecution before the Cologne Regional Court (Landgericht) of a Muslim doctor who circumcised a 4-year-old Muslim boy – he was only acquitted for absence of mens rea. Subsequently, the controversy was resolved by an amendment to the Civil Code in December 2012 under which parents may have their boys circumcised by a trained practitioner provided they are no more than six months old: above that age the procedure must be performed by a doctor. We also noted the survey carried out by YouGov which revealed that, when asked about “male circumcision for religious reasons”, 38 per cent of respondents supported a ban, 35 per cent opposed it and 27 per cent were undecided. (They were even more unenthusiastic about ritual slaughter without pre-stunning).
Although a vote of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is non-binding on its member states, it does have significant persuasive influence; and shortly after the vote, children’s ombudsmen from five Nordic countries agreed to work with their national governments to achieve a ban on non-therapeutic circumcision of under-age boys. Should (or perhaps when) the issue comes before the European Court of Human Rights, the report and resolution will be taken into account in the Court’s deliberations.
Once endorsed, the content of such reports seldom receives further detailed attention; but in view of the importance and implications of all of the issues covered in this most recent one – female genital mutilation; the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons; early childhood medical interventions in the case of intersex children; and the submission to or coercion of children into piercings, tattoos or plastic surgery – the report of Ms Rupprecht, “a children’s rights activist”, [para. 21, page 9], should perhaps be subjected to further impartial critical analysis.
Finally, we do wish that sub-editors could learn the difference between the EU and the Council of Europe. Given the controversies surrounding both the UK’s membership of the EU and the UK’s continued adherence to the ECHR, it doesn’t help the situation one whit if people who should know better mix them up. Perhaps they should read our idiot’s guide to Europe.
David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer
 Recommendation 2023: 78 in favour and 13 against, with 15 abstentions; Recommendation 1952: 77 in favour, 19 against, and 12 abstaining. The latter contains a more detailed discussion of the right to physical integrity and specifically supports genital autonomy for children.