Circumcision – ‘The real issue is’…

January 16, 2017

The debate about male circumcision in Norway is a struggle over how to frame the issue: Is it really about religion and religious freedom, or is it really about health?

The Jewish position refuses to accept the religious vs non-religious distinction in the circumcision debate. Photo: Kevin Brown, Flickr/CC 2.0

The Jewish position refuses to accept the religious vs non-religious distinction in the circumcision debate. Photo: Kevin Brown, Flickr/CC 2.0

Most of those who take part in the debate view circumcision as either entirely about religion or about health. Underlying the discussion is a sharp distinction between the religious and the non-religious. A Jewish voice challenges this dichotomy. 

The realities of male circumcision can be described in different ways: 

Through a solemn ceremony a newborn boy is welcomed into a community and a tradition that will provide him with existential meaning and moral guidance. A father makes sure that his son will have the same sense of belonging as he himself received from his father, and the father from his father again through generations and centuries. An experienced mohel, himself part of unbroken tradition since Biblical times, takes care of the ritual as well as the medical soundness of the ceremony. 


A baby boy is rushed to hospital, but too late. Despite their best efforts the hospital staff is unable to save his life. The doctor who performed his circumcision a few days earlier is severely criticised. It is not the first time his practice is responsible for circumcisions that go wrong. 

Both of these descriptions are true. Each is suited to stir emotions, but told on its own each captures only a part of what discussions about male circumcision are about. Public debates in Norway on this sensitive topic in recent years have been conducted on several levels. It is a debate about the pros and cons of male circumcision, but at the same time a struggle over what the real issue is: religion or health.  

New legislation 

On 16 June 2014 the Norwegian parliament passed a new law that regulates ritual male circumcision. In short, ritual circumcision can only be performed under the supervision of a medical doctor, and the public health service must ensure that such services are available to the public. The legislation was proposed three years earlier and sparked a public debate in Norway on a topic that was rarely discussed in public before.  

In this blogpost I present some preliminary findings from a research project that analyses newspaper debates on the topic prior to June 2014. The research is carried out within a broader project on “formatting” of religion called “Good protestant – bad religion?” (GOBA) at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo. 

The public debate prior to the passing of the new legislation barely touched upon the details of the proposed legislation such as how the public health service should provide for male circumcision and who should pay for the procedure. Instead it became a debate for or against circumcision. Should it be banned or not, or, more precisely, should there be an age limit or not. No ban or age limit had existed before, nor was it part of the proposed legislation. 

Framing: health or religion 

In the material under study, like in many other media debates, little time and energy is spent explicitly discussing the other side’s arguments. Instead the struggle is over how to frame the issue and about what type of arguments to allow.  

Many actors in the debate are conscious of this struggle themselves, and thus there is also a meta-discussion going on about the framing. Several contributions start with lamenting that the debate is carried out within the wrong frame. It is being discussed as if it is a question about religion, but “really” it is about children’s health. Or, it is discussed only in terms of health, but “really” it is about religious freedom. Some claim that the debate is dominated entirely by emotional arguments, others that it is conducted in a cold and rational language that leaves no room for empathy. Regardless of which of these positions the speaker represents, the strong tendency is to understand ones own position as underrepresented within the debate. In terms of framing it seems that being a representative of a marginalised position, is a desirable role to take.  

In one sense the Norwegian debate on circumcision started as a health issue debate. The proposal for a new law came from the Ministry of Health. By providing circumcisions through the public health service they sought to curb potentially more hazardous circumcision practices. A leading actor in the debate was the Ombudsman for Children, Anne Lindboe, who herself is a medical doctor. She and other representatives of the health professions are the main spokespersons for a ban or age limit. Their assumption is that the health risks involved in male circumcision trump other concerns which they therefore seldom discuss. 

Those who oppose a ban or age limit are a more diverse group consisting of, among many others, some scholars of religion, liberal politicians, church representatives and representatives of those directly affected – mostly Muslims and Jews. They tend to draw attention to the long history of circumcising boys, and they speak about protection of minorities and not least about religious freedom. The question about health hazards is mostly absent.  

In short, each side rarely engages with the other side’s arguments.  

Challenging health vs religion 

A striking and very important exception to the tendency to insist on framing the debate about circumcision either as a discussion about religion or as a discussion about health is the way representatives of the Jewish community have insisted that circumcision is religiously ordained because of its health benefits. In the formal response from the Jewish community to the proposed legislation in 2011 as well as in interviews with the president of the Jewish community and in newspaper texts written by him, the health benefits of circumcision are repeatedly emphasised: Circumcision protects against sexually transmitted diseases and some other infections, they claim, and the World Health Organisation recommends circumcision in certain parts of the world. This position is based on research, especially American, and triggers a discussion concerning the quality of different medical studies. That in turn triggers a meta-discussion about whether American research is biased in favour of circumcision because this is a widespread practice in the US, or if it is rather European research that’s biased against circumcision, because the practice is less common here. 

It is tempting to see Jewish representatives’ insistence on the health benefits of circumcision as adapting to a perceived requirement to use “secular language” in the public sphere as discussed not least by Jürgen Habermas. However, the president of the Jewish community explicitly rejects a distinction between “religious” and “secular” arguments: Philosophy, theology and practical rules go hand in hand in Jewish life, he explains in a newspaper article. The religious cannot be extracted from the non-religious. Yes, Jews circumcise because God has commanded it, but that is not enough. A Jew, the argument goes, will ask “why?” And the answer is: It is a good thing to do to children. Otherwise God would not have ordained it, and Jews, including secular or atheist Jews, would not have continued the practice, the Jewish representative argues. 

The suggestion that Jews should leave health arguments to health professionals and rather frame circumcision as a question of religious freedom, is noble, says the president of the Jewish community, but its “frames of reference are, however, Lutheran, and within these frames of reference religion is spirituality”. These frames give prominence, he continues, to questions about whether a person “believes” or not. This is foreign to Jewish thinking, he claims.   

Strategic arguments? 

The Jewish position which refuses to accept the religious vs non-religious distinction and to choose between a health framing and a religious freedom framing of the debates about male circumcision challenges many of those involved in the debates on both sides.  

In fact, the new legislation, that is now in force, explicitly presupposes the religious – non-religious distinction. The law regulates “ritual circumcision” which is defined in terms of its purpose having a “religious justification” (“…og hvor formålet er religiøst begrunnet” (§2)). The law does not regulate circumcision for medical reasons.  

Jewish representatives were criticised by some for being “strategic” in their argumentation when they accepted the health issue framing. However, by accepting it, Jewish representatives may also move away from the logic that guides the legislation that ensures their right to perform male circumcisions. That may be a principled move, but hardly politically strategic.