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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Religious Surgery and Children’s Rights

Female genital mutilation (FGM)

Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been illegal in the UK since 1985 and the law was updated in 2003. Despite this, some British girls of Muslim parents are still being sent back to the countries of their parents' origin for this abusive procedure to be done. And, many believe it is even performed secretly in this country. We therefore question why there has not been a single successful prosecution since the practise became illegal. We are concerned that fear of upsetting cultural and religious sensitivities prevents such abuse and bodily harm from being tackled effectively.


All children deserve equal protection under the law, regardless of their gender, and the UK is obliged to ensure non-discriminatory application of its law under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.Given that female infants are protected from all forms of genital cutting in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, there can be little argument that the same protection ought to be extended to male children.

The principle behind FGM ban was the protection of girls from any form of genital cutting, no matter how slight or what the cultural background of the parent. There is no legitimate basis for denying such protection to boys.

Circumcision is far from risk-free and affects a significant minority of infants. Scarring, infections, pain on urinating and psychosexual difficulties are not uncommon results of ritual childhood circumcision. In one hospital alone in 2011, 11 baby boys needed to be admitted to the hospital's paediatric intensive care unit with serious, life-threatening complications following circumcision. In February 2012, a baby boy died in North London as a direct result of bleeding complications two days after a ritual circumcision.

A statement of the Royal Dutch Medical Association produced along with seven other Dutch scientific associations including the GPs, paediatric surgeons, paediatricians and urologists concluded that the procedure can be harmful and that it violates the boy's human rights to autonomy and physical integrity.

This position was mirrored by the recent German court ruling which found that non-therapeutic circumcision of male children amounts to bodily injury, and is therefore a criminal offence.

We welcome the development that the lawfulness of child circumcision is being increasingly questioned and that medical opinion in a number of countries is similarly turning against the historic carte blanche afforded to infant circumcision on the basis that the parents' freedom of religion is the only consideration. Instead, it is now being recognised more widely that this non-therapeutic procedure for which there are numerous complications, some of which are very serious, is a breach of children's rights.

We reject the claim that a parent's right to religious freedom, entitles them to decide for themselves whether they wish to have this intervention carried out. Denying parents any entitlement to make such a decision does not constitute any limitation of the parents' right to manifest their religion; the child has rights too, not only to religious freedom, but also to the right to physical integrity. This invasive surgery is non-consensual, non-therapeutic, irreversible, unnecessary and not without risk. We argue that It should be postponed until the boy is old enough to give (or withhold) informed consent.

Find out more

Read a letter from the Secular Medical Forum to Chancellor Merkel urging her to protect German children from ritual genital cutting

Read our letter to Sarah Teather MP, Minister of State for Children and Families, asking her to investigate whether non-therapeutic infant circumcision is a breach of UK children's rights