Changes have been proposed to the law on ritual circumcision in Norway, with health officials hoping to ensure that the procedure can be done under proper medical conditions by covering it for free as part of the public health system.
Until around 10 years ago, free circumcisions were available to parents in public hospitals, almost always right after birth. Opposition from doctors nonetheless increased until the practice ended within the public health system.
Today, parents must themselves pay for the procedure, and a change in the law to cover the operation for free will cost the government NOK 13 million (around USD 2.5 million). Currently, anyone may carry out ritual circumcision as long as they have parental consent, raising concerns about the medical ethics of the procedure. Only a small number of private medical practices carry out the procedure, which is often expensive and requires traveling far. A black market in circumcisions has therefore arisen in Norway, with many of those who perform the procedure traveling from other countries without recognized qualifications or medical licenses, and performing the surgery in offices, refugee centers and other non-medical facilities.
Tord Dale, a junior minister in the health and care department representing the Labour Party, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the suggestion was “to ensure that circumcision happens safely and with pain alleviation” as it is “important for very many.”
The proposed change comes with two alternatives. Parents can choose either between having only a doctor present, or having others connected to their religion and experienced in circumcision carry out the procedure under the observation of medical professionals. There is no provision in the draft law to allow doctors to refuse the procedure because of ethical considerations. Instead, Dale “hopes this can resolve itself through internal discussion at hospitals.” Furthermore, the new law would require parental permission for boys under 18, and would not be undertaken without the boy’s consent where it was possible to ascertain the boy’s wishes.
Many Norwegian doctors are still uneasy with ritual circumcision. Trond Markestad, a pediatrician and leader of the Norwegian Medical Association (NMA) ethical council, believes that circumcising a boy on non-medical grounds is unethical and “should not be a prioritized public responsibility.” “This is a medically unnecessary procedure, with the threat of complications, and is done to a person that can not give consent,” Markestad told NRK. While the NMA is not in favour of a blanket ban on ritual circumcision, it has encouraged religious leaders to work out other rituals they can use in the long term.
Another doctor and convert to Islam, Trond Ali Linstad, disagrees with the NMA. “This is simply closing one’s eyes to what really happens,” Linstad told NRK. “People will not stop getting circumcisions, so therefore there should be public control for this and arrangements made so that it can go on in a way in which everyone can feel safe.” Other Muslims also welcomed the news. Imam Tayab Berghout, who works at the mosque in Trondheim, explained to NRK that currently Muslims often “find no-one that will do it in Norway, and must therefore plan expensive trips to their home country.”
The state ombudsman for children, Reidar Hjermann, nonetheless disagrees, and has put forward a lower age limit for non-medical circumcisions of 16 or 18. This would effectively ban ritual circumcisions, as Muslims generally complete them before the age of 15 and Jews must do them within eight days after birth.