A Cut Too Far? Male Circumcision
Thousands of baby boys are circumcised annually in the UK mainly for religious reasons. With some countries debating a ban on it, the programme asks: should we ban it here?
Every year in the UK thousands of baby boys are circumcised for religious or cultural reasons. The practice, which involves removing a small part of their penis, is one of the most common surgical procedures in the world. But, in Britain, it’s becoming one of the most controversial. Several European countries are considering a ban on it, unless there are medical reasons for the operation to be carried out. Is it something we should consider banning here?
Journalist Adnan Sarwar was circumcised by his Muslim parents as an infant, and now he has questions about the operation and its safety. He wants to know: is circumcision an outmoded practice, long overdue for regulatory intervention? Or is it a harmless expression of the cultural and religious freedoms that we claim to hold so dear?
Adnan begins his journey at an Islamic circumcision clinic in the East London Mosque run by consultant surgeon Dr. Mohammad Howlader. 80% of his patients are Muslim, but the clinic is open to all. He tells Adnan that with the procedure unregulated in the UK he wants to provide a safe clinical environment for children to be circumcised in.
At Dr. Howlader's surgery Adnan meets Fumi - a Christian originally from Nigeria - who wants her young son to be circumcised. It’s a cultural tradition for her, "Every boy in our family has to get it done." Dr. Howlader completes Fumi's son's circumcision quickly and without complications.
For Adnan watching the procedure raises more questions. He's astonished to discover that it is an unregulated procedure in the UK and meets barrister James Chegwidden to find out what the legal position is, "The law says any interference on a person’s body without their consent is an assault and that parents can only consent to surgical operations that are in the best interests of the child. And yet in practice thousands and thousands of children, of male infants are being circumcised. It’s not surprising, that more and more think that that is anomalous and, frankly, unacceptable." This highlights a key question for Adnan, where is the balance to be struck between the rights of a child and the parents’ right to express their beliefs?
Adnan talks to his own mother and father about his own circumcision as a baby. They tell him they did it because Muslims believe it’s a commandment from God .
Islam is the second biggest religion in the UK, and most Muslim boys are circumcised. Adnan meets Saleem Sidat, an Islamic scholar to find out why it’s so important in the faith. Saleem tells him the circumcision of boys is a religious symbol encouraged by the prophet Mohammad out of respect for Abraham - a prophet revered in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But Saleem says there is nothing in the Qur’an requiring the circumcision of boys.
The other faith that routinely practices circumcision is Judaism. Dr Jonathan Romain MBE, a Rabbi and a leading Jewish scholar, tells Adnan that Circumcision is mentioned in the Jewish holy book: the Tor’ah. It’s seen as one of God’s commands and integral to the faith.
The vast majority of the people in both the Jewish and Islamic faiths support circumcision, but there are people who are fighting against it. Adnan talks with Dr Jenny Goodman a psychotherapist who has been challenging circumcision for over 30 years within the Jewish community. She believes that the circumcision of boys is a feminist issue, "It isn’t only about children’s rights, it’s about the rights of the mother who’s just given birth not to hurt her baby boy."
Adnan also looks at the medical evidence given in support of male circumcision. He meets a leading urologist, Dr Gordon Muir, who says that while there is evidence that circumcised boys are marginally less likely to develop urinary tract infections, such infections are rare and treatable with antibiotics. He also believes that while the majority of circumcised men have no complaints about the procedure, there is a small risk of very serious harm: "Every year babies around the world lose their whole penis, and there are a small number of deaths in the European Union every year from non-therapeutic circumcisions. While the risks are very small it has got to be set against the potential benefits, which I would say are minimal."
It’s a debate that will see Adnan pulled both ways. He will realise that this isn’t just a debate about cutting a piece of skin. It’s taken him to the frontline of a battle being fought between religious/cultural traditions and secular norms. Deciding where the line should be drawn in this case will be a very difficult challenge indeed.