The Right of the Child against Compulsory Religious Belonging

The recent bill in Iceland that would make nonmedical infant circumcision for boys a crime reminds me once again how international human rights standards are still ambiguous with regard to balancing the right of the child with the right of the religious parent. The bill, already sponsored by at least a quarter of Iceland’s doctors and more than 1000 nurses and midwives, inevitably met with criticism from religious groups that practice male circumcision. The drafters of the bill denied the suspicion that the legislation is an attack on religious freedom, citing health reasons as its primary motivation. Unsurprisingly, the controversy is framed in terms of whether certain public health mandates for children should trump the religious freedom of parents not to conform to these mandates. In Iceland, the issue is magnified by the extremely small Jewish and Muslim populations in the country – adding charges of xenophobia to the controversy. In this blog post, I will not focus on recounting the history of the debate of male circumcision and international law, but to articulate my general frustration with a discourse like this that takes the right of religious parents to impose religious memberships and beliefs onto their biological children for granted. Why is it so rarely discussed, that the child born into a religious household may have a form of agency not yet recognized by our current legal and ethical discourse? Why should we grant parents the benefit of the doubt that they have “the best interest of their child” in mind when acting as proxies in medical and health matters?

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