Circumcision Circumscribed – an interfaith perspective in 2012

As part of Interfaith week 2012 the student members of the Jewish Medical Association UK (JMA) and the Muslim Healthcare Students Network (MHSN) organised a panel discussion on 20th November 2012.

The background to the meeting was that both Jews and Muslims have had to tackle questions about circumcision practices in their respective communities during 2012 – and the forum provided an opportunity for medical students to learn more about why and how this has happened, and to place the questions in their ethical, legal, medical and religious perspective.

The chair was taken jointly by Hadiya Mahmood (MHSN, from Leeds) and Shier:Ziser (JMA, from UCL). Speakers were Prof David Katz, Shaykh Dr Asim Yusuf and Adam Wagner

Prof Katz (who is co-chair of Milah UK, which aims to increase public understanding about Jewish practices in relation to circumcision), summarised the religious (Biblical) background, and outlined the traditional procedures based upon Maimonidean texts. He noted that neonatal male circumcision has been classified as a procedure of “social, religious and cultural” significance in the UK. The recent decision of a minor German court had been extraordinarily well publicised, and had led to the current public interest.

Shaykh Yusuf explained the Islamic basis for male circumcision under divine guidance and law of mercy. It is regarded as the classic Abrahamic sign, and although not obligatory it is recommended and performed by more than 90% of Muslims. The age at which it is performed is influenced by issues of risk, modesty and amount of pain and discomfort. The methods used are not defined specifically other than as removal of the prepuce.

Adam Wagner reviewed the different legal frameworks under which neonatal male circumcision might be scrutinised. Apart from criminal law, this could include medical law (Gillick), human rights law, and the rights of children. Freedom of religion was part of the European Convention on Human Rights but was not absolute, and the fact that there was no net harm or benefit was important. He concluded that there was unlikely to be a ban as envisaged in the German court’s decision, but that the risks were greater in Europe than in the UK.


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