Male circumcision can sometimes be required for medical reasons but it is also performed for religious or cultural purposes. This is referred to as "ritual" or "non-therapeutic" circumcision. Doctors are permitted to refuse to perform the procedure for "ritual" or "non-therapeutic" purposes if to do so will go against their conscience. In both circumstances, male circumcision is an irreversible surgical procedure.
"Ritual" or "non-therapeutic" circumcisions are often performed on male children when they are very young. Because the procedure is permanent and because these children are often too young to be able to provide informed consent themselves, the practice is the topic of some controversy.
For some, ritual circumcision is considered to be fundamental to someone's cultural or religious identity and conformity. To others, it is seen as permanent disfigurement which risks causing future physical and psychological harm.
The debate around the morality and legality of the practice has been re-ignited after Iceland's Progressive Party proposed a bill which would make non-therapeutic circumcision of boys below the age of consent a criminal offence, punishable with up to six years imprisonment. In the UK, there has also recently been significant media coverage of a mother's attempt to hold someone accountable for the circumcision of her baby boy without her knowledge or consent.
It is generally held that male circumcision is legal in the UK provided that there is valid consent and that the procedure is performed by someone who is "competent". In instances where the person receiving the procedure is too young to give consent, consent must be provided by those with parental responsibility for the child or by the Court. Without such consent, the act is likely to amount to an assault.
Those with parental responsibility are permitted to make decisions in relation to and on behalf of a child who is too young to make such decisions independently. A mother will automatically have parental responsibility for her child, as will a married father. Unmarried fathers, step-parents and grandparents do not have parental responsibility automatically although they can acquire it.
In a high court case in 2016, a father of two young boys argued that it would be in their best interests for them to be circumcised in accordance with his Muslim faith. Their mother disagreed. The judge declined to make an order to enable them to be circumcised, instead deciding that the decision should be deferred until the boys were old enough to provide consent themselves. Where two people with parental responsibility cannot agree on whether or not a child should be subjected to non-therapeutic circumcision, the procedure must not be performed without leave of the court. Therefore, if you and your partner disagree about whether or not your child should be circumcised, you should seek advice from a family law solicitor.
If you have discovered that your son has been circumcised without your knowledge and/or your consent, you may wish to seek medical advice in the first instance. The police and the Crown Prosecution can be slow and reluctant to take action in response to allegations of unlawful circumcision, perhaps due to the cultural and familial context in which they often arise. If you have made such allegations to the police and you are concerned about how those allegations have been handled, it may assist you to seek advice from a specialist solicitor.
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