The ban on circumcision in Iceland: Humanity or hipocrisy?

by Roald Eyvindsson

This month Iceland made headlines across the world, following a heated debate about a new bill, currently before the Icelandic parliament (Alþingi), that proposes to ban any kind of mutilation on children, including religious circumcision. If passed into law Iceland would become the first European country to do so.


The MP who put the bill forward, Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir of The Progressive Party (Framsókn), claims that non-medical circumcision of baby boys violates their human rights as outlined in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. She has compared it to FGM, i.e. female genital mutilation which is already banned in Iceland and has been since 2005.


As could be expected Silja‘s argument has proven to be quite controversial. Jewish and Muslim leaders have criticized the bill, calling it an attack on religious freedom pointing out the fact that Jewish and Muslim boys are often circumcised. And The President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community has condemned it on the same grounds.


But the bill has also gotten its fair share of support, both within the Icelandic parliament and outside of it. Including the involvement of more than 400 Icelandic doctors who signed a declaration of support for it. A declaration saying that they believe that a circumcision done without particular medical reason goes against the moral demands of the Declaration of Geneva.


The general public of Iceland has also had their say in the matter, most notably on social media and message boards of various media outlets where the majority seems to have rallied behind Silja‘s argument, boasting themselves of living in a country that protests such atrocious procedures being performed on innocent children, who don‘t have a say in the matter.


Now, given the nation‘s interest in this matter and as it seems its general stance against “genital mutilation on infants“ one would have thought that the people of Iceland would flock to a symposium that was recently held at the University of Iceland: a symposium where one of the matters discussed were unnecessary surgeries performed on the genitalia of infants in Iceland and their harmful consequences. That the social media would be filled with shock and outrage and solidarity in demanding that these procedures, like male circumcision, should be banned by law.


Oddly enough, however, there has been no uproar. No shock. No outrage. No demands what-so-ever. And a live stream from the symposium itself showed a class room that was almost half empty.


Wait. So where were all the doctors who signed the declaration against male circumcision without particular medical reason? Where were the MP‘s behind the before-mentioned bill? Why did only one MP and one deputy MP show up? Where were all the people who have been raging about the cruelty inflicted on boys who are circumcised? Why where they not present?


Was it due to bad weather or because it’s harder to get officials to attend events during the weekend, as the organizers of the symposium have politely pointed out as a possible explanation.


Or could other factors be at play? Such as the fact that the symposium was dedicated to the human rights of intersex people, i.e. people who are born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definition of female or male and „are at a medical level, seen as a problem that needs to be fixed so that parents of intersex infants are pressured into sending their offspring into surgery so they fit a specific male or female anatomy.“ Procedures which, like circumcision, are performed on young children without their consent. Interventions which are usually non-emergency-related and can have life-long harmful effects on the individuals.


Is it maybe because, deep down, the general public agrees to these procedures, despite having voiced concerns about them? After all human kind has a long history of wanting to fix groups of people so they fit into the socially accepted norm. Or is it maybe because it’s harder to cry out that human rights are being violated when they are violated by your own country and have been for decades and you can‘t blame them on smaller communities which customs you find gruesome?


Whatever the reason may be, the truth of the matter is that the general public is well aware of the situation of intersex people in Iceland. In fact we are so aware of it that even the Icelandic government clearly specifies intersex rights in their government coalition agreement, the first government in the world to do so.


But still intersex people enjoy no legal recognition in Iceland. No legal recognition what-so-ever. There is no mention of intersex people in Icelandic law. Not even a bill on the issues of intersex people exists, despite the fact that there has been a public discussion about the human rights abuse of intersex people in Iceland since at least 2014 when Intersex Iceland was founded. Despite the fact that previous ministers of equality have talked about improving the situation of intersex people. Despite the fact that most political parties talked in the same manner in the parliamentary elections in 2016. Among them the parties that are now in government


And yet, MPs of the Icelandic parliament have still somehow managed to put together a bill that proposes to ban male circumcision without medical reason. Something that almost seems to have come out of the blue since there was no special debate on the matter preceding it in Iceland.


So, why hasn’t the Icelandic parliament taken action in the matters of intersex people when genital procedures done on intersex children clearly violate their human rights? Why is it starting to look like our MP’s generally don‘t take a serious interest in the human rights of intersex people at all? Are we to believe that protecting the rights of intersex people is merely something that political parties like to put in their policies and use as queer bait before elections?


I am an optimist by nature, but the situation is not only beginning to reek of incompetence and apathy, it’s becoming outright scandalous. And if we don‘t do something about it soon, it’s going to leave a stain on our nation‘s history – one that we are never going to be able to wash away.