No legislation in Finland yet on religious-based child circumcision

Helsinki, Finland - The three-week old son of a Jewish family in Helsinki was circumcised at the age of eight days.

Although tradition calls for holding the ceremony among men, the mother decided to hold her son’s hand during the procedure.

“I don’t think that I would have agreed to the operation without a local anaesthetic”, the mother says.

Holding a ritual circumcision, or bris was virtually a foregone conclusion for the family. The procedure was performed by a Finnish surgeon.

“I didn’t want to invite my non-Jewish friends to the name-giving ceremony, because the atmosphere in Finland is such that I don’t really know who to tell about these things.”

Many other parents, for whom circumcision is part of the family’s religion or culture, think the same. Some who have had their sons circumcised in recent years have been charged with assault and battery.

Helsinki District Court is hearing two cases on Monday in which parents and a person performing a circumcision are accused of assault and battery. The person performing the circumcision did not have medical training in Finland.

District Prosecutor Eija Velitski, who brought forward the charges, feels that it is problematic that there is no law in Finland that would define the terms under which non-medical circumcisions can be considered acceptable.

In the case at hand, prosecutors and police are leaning on the criminal code in which the infliction of bodily violence with a sharp object is considered aggravated assault and battery.

There is one precedent dating back to 2008.

In it, the Finnish Supreme Court found that the circumcision of a Muslim boy was not a crime, as it was performed in a medically appropriate manner for acceptable, religion-based reasons. The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on a case in which the procedure was performed by someone other than a doctor.

At the appeals court level, there have been both convictions and acquittals for having circumcisions performed by a layperson.

In the view of Raimo Lahti, Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Helsinki, the situation is legally vague, and the decision of the Supreme Court does not adequately address the issue. There are no clear guidelines on who is authorised to perform the surgeries, and what the attitude of the health care profession should be.

Lahti feels that the matter should be evaluated against the backdrop of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Human rights and Biomedicine.

According to the treaty, a procedure affecting a person’s health can only be performed on a person incapable of giving consent, if there is an immediate benefit for the person in question.

Debate on the need for legislation has been going on for more than a decade, and in 2003 the Ministry for Social Affairs and Health proposed legislation that would allow circumcisions to be performed under certain conditions.

The proposal got a mixed reception, and preparation of the law was not continued. The ministry says that the matter has not been raised under the current government.

Minister of Social Services Maria Guzenina-Richardson (SDP) was too busy to comment on the matter to Helsingin Sanomat.