Ha’aretz (Israel) – June 17, 2001
By Nitzan Horowitz
Sweden has passed a new law, the first of its kind in the world: Circumcision will take place only in the presence of a doctor and only with the use of a “pain-killer” administered by the medical man. From New York, the World Jewish Congress is accusing Sweden of placing the first legal restriction in Europe since the Nazi period on a Jewish religious practice.
“The circumcision of children is a cruel and very painful operation,” explains Professor Yngve Hofvander, formerly the head of International Maternal and Child Health at Uppsala University.
The law was passed after two Muslim boys died after being circumcised. The circumcision of boys, writes Hofvander, “contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of Children and should be called mutilation, just like female circumcision is now … There has been a mindless fear about calling things by their correct name, due to the risk of offending religious groups. It took some years before one was able to call female circumcision, mutilation – but now this term is officially sanctioned.”
The case that caused a storm in Stockholm was heard this year in court. A Muslim boy was circumcised by a private practitioner. He screamed with pain for several hours, and received an injection of a pain-killer, apparently in the wrong dosage. After some time, he stopped breathing and died.
Hofvander says that circumcision is a medically pointless operation, as it removes healthy tissue from a healthy body part, and therefore no complications from this operation are acceptable. “And yet a child becomes a victim in a ritual that is characterized by demands made by adults.” The child, he adds, has no way of defending himself apart from trying to escape and screaming.
After the law was passed, the debate has been focused on its interpretation. Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior, who has a rabbinical-Scandinavian background, gets to the heart of the matter: “The original proposal for the law was formulated in coordination with community, but it was changed and now it says that the painkiller must be given only by a doctor or a nurse. This would be acceptable to the community. But there are certain people who are interested in a strict interpretation who say that if only a doctor is allowed to administer the painkiller, this means a local intravenous anesthetic, because otherwise a ritual circumciser could apply an anesthetic ointment. If the intravenous interpretation prevails, a problem of Jewish law will develop, and medically, too, such anesthesia could be dangerous.”
The Swedes are aware of the fact that the circumcision of boys is not considered an unacceptable norm. However, they are going their own way as trailblazers, just as they have done in other social fields.
Hofvander argues that even if millions of boys are circumcised every year, this does not mean that their parents are right. “Many millions of girls are sexually mutilated annually – are their parents right or wrong?” he writes. “Many millions of Chinese girls had their feet bound so that they did not develop – were their parents right or wrong? It was the custom to beat children (with support from authorities, including pronouncements in the Bible!) – were their parents right or wrong?” He notes that with the development of principles of justice, these practices are no longer tolerated. Now, he declares, “The time has come to seriously question male circumcision and mutilation.”
By October, the Swedish government will have to publish regulations concerning the most controversial aspect of the implementation of the law: Does “painkiller” mean a local anesthetic? The Jewish organizations are worried. The Swedish foreign minister has promised Melchior that her government will make effort to coordinate the matter with the Jewish community.
The World Jewish Congress expected that Israel would discuss this with the Swedish prime minister during his visit here last week. In Jerusalem they preferred to discuss other matters with Goran Persson, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU. Persson says he was not even asked about this in Israel, but remarked that had he been asked, he would have said that he too is opposed to the new law.