A recent judgment by a lower court in Germany brought the problem of ritual male circumcision to the consciousness of the wider public and legal academia. This essay weighs in on this emerging discussion and argues that ritual male circumcision is not covered by parental authority because it violates the human rights of the boy on whom it is imposed. It first considers and dismisses the best interest test of parental authority which, by focusing on the well-being of the child as opposed to his (future) autonomy, fails to take the boy’s human rights sufficiently into account. Instead, the essay proposes what it terms the autonomy conception of parental authority, according to which parental authority must be exercised such as to ensure that the child will become an autonomous adult. While parents may raise their child in line with their ethical, including religious, convictions, respect for his autonomy requires that this be done in a way that allows the child to later distance himself from these values; this implies, among other things, that irreversible physical changes are impermissible. This conclusion holds even if it could be assumed that the child would later come to endorse his circumcision: a proper understanding of autonomy implies that the religious sacrifice of a body part can only be authorised by the person whose body it is. Thus, ritual male circumcision is outside the scope of parental authority because it usurps the child’s right and responsibility to become the author of his own life.
30 June 2017
'Ritual Male Circumcision and Parental Authority' by Kai Möller (London School of Economics - Law Department) comments