NEWS ANALYSIS: Finland lacks policy on religiously-mandated male circumcision
by Irina Vähäsarja
The issue of circumcisions performed on boys for religious and cultural reasons has reached a stage in Finland in which it is difficult to find a solution that is acceptable to all.
The Green League voted in favour of a resolution at its party congress a week ago that such procedures should be phased out in Finland either through advice or, if necessary, through legislation.
Finns Party MP Vesa-Matti Sarakkala submitted a legislative initiative in Parliament calling for an outright ban on circumcisions.
Earlier in the spring the issue was also taken up by Minister of Justice Anna-Maja Henriksson (Swed. People’s Party). In her view, the procedures should be permitted, but legislation, or at least guidelines from the ministerial level are needed on who may perform the circumcisions and under what circumstances.
There are problems involved in both permitting and prohibiting the operations, but there are also problems involved in the Finnish status quo, which has no specific legislation to back it up.
It is estimated that hundreds of non-medical circumcisions are performed on boys each year, but the circumstances under which they might be permitted, and when they would be classified as criminal assault are unclear.
A basic guideline has been the decision handed down by the Supreme Court in 2008, in which the religiously motivated circumcision performed on a Muslim boy was not considered a crime, as it was performed in a medically sound manner.
The decision has been interpreted in such a way that non-medical circumcisions have been seen as permissible as long as they are performed by a doctor.
However, last year Helsinki District Court took a tougher line. The court ruled, among other things, that the person undergoing the procedure should understand what is happening. This means that circumcision of small children would not be allowed.
The court based its decision on the Convention on Human rights and Biomedicine of the Council of Europe, which was adopted by Finland only after the Supreme Court’s decision.
The case is still in the Court of Appeals, and it is too early to say if the Supreme Court will rule on it someday.
As long as no legislation is passed, or case law established, cases will end up in court. The situation causes uncertainty among parents who do not know if they could face charges.
If the surgeries are banned, there is a danger that they will be performed abroad, or that quacks might be enlisted for the purpose, and that if complications occur, the parents might be afraid to take their children in for treatment. In addition, both the Jewish and Muslim communities oppose any ban.
However, if the procedures are permitted, Finland will be giving its approval to medically unnecessary surgery that interferes with the integrity of the body. The Finnish Medical Association takes the stand that child circumcisions are in conflict with medical ethics.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health favours a compromise. It does not take a stand in either direction on the issue of legislation, but it is preparing a set of guidelines for health care professionals.
Ministry official Marie Kolimaa is not disclosing the content or schedule of the guidelines. “There are many things that remain open”, she says.
This is certainly easy to believe. A number of thorny questions need to be considered:
Should public health care be used for the performance of a religious ritual?
What if all doctors refuse on ethical grounds?
If the procedures are consigned to the private sector, is it still possible to get a public subsidy?
There is also the question of basic principles, which the Greens also referred to.
Should Finland seek to act in such a way that non-medical circumcisions of boys would become less common, or be eliminated completely? If so, what would be the means to that end?
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 28.5.2012
Previously in HS International Edition:
Circumcision assault case brings fine – conviction but no punishment for parents (2.1.2012)
Supreme Court: Properly performed religious based male circumcision no crime (17.10.2008)
Court rules circumcision of four-year-old boy illegal (7.8.2008)
Prosecutor General defers move on Kuopio botched circumcision case (9.4.2003)
Some hospitals sharply oppose religiously mandated circumcisions (25.3.2003)
IRINA VÄHÄSARJA / Helsingin Sanomat