by David Balashinsky

May 7th, 2023 is the eleventh anniversary of the ruling by the Regional Court of Cologne recognizing that nonconsensual, non-therapeutic penile circumcision constitutes an illegal act of bodily harm.  That ruling has been commemorated every May 7th since as the Worldwide Day of Genital Autonomy.

The Worldwide Day of Genital Autonomy, or WWDOGA, calls for the State Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to honor their commitment to “take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.”  WWDOGA also calls for legislative initiatives to protect all children, regardless of sex, against non-therapeutic genital surgeries.  It calls for the protection of children with atypical sex characteristics from genital surgeries when not medically indicated; it calls for an immediate end to the campaign of mass circumcision of African boys; and it calls for a program of publicly-funded research and education on the consequences of genital cutting for children in all its various social contexts.  These objectives are so basic to any rational definition of fundamental human rights that WWDOGA has now grown into an annual observance that is supported by over 90 organizations around the world. 

One of these is the Genital Autonomy Legal Defense and Education Fund (GALDEF) which is proud to support of the eleventh annual Worldwide Day of Genital Autonomy.

GALDEF‘s Mission is “to promote impact litigation by providing the resources needed for our clients to win legal cases involving medically unnecessary genital cutting.”  Our Vision is “to create a world where the rights of children to bodily integrity and future autonomy over their genitals and their sexuality are respected and legally protected.”  

Although our strategies may differ, the ultimate goals of WWDOGA and GALDEF are the same.  Both organizations are working to create a world in which the right of every individual to ownership of their own genitals is recognized and respected.  Like WWDOGAGALDEF believes that this right is absolute, fundamental and belongs to every human being regardless of sex or any other individual- or group identification.  For us at GALDEF, that means helping those who have been deprived of this right seek redress through the judicial process.  But our mission is much broader, much deeper and much more ambitious than fighting for this cause on an individual, case-by-case basis.  We believe that strategic and targeted legal actions can result in precedent-setting and high-profile judgments that will reverberate throughout the legal landscape, across the country and beyond.  This will have the effect of discouraging others from violating or assisting others in violating the right to genital autonomy of every child everywhere.

It is not a coincidence that both WWDOGA and GALDEF have the phrase “genital autonomy” in their names.  The principle of genital autonomy is the moral foundation of both organizations; the universal safeguarding of this right, the cause to which both organizations are committed. 

Nor is it a coincidence that a judicial remedy for forced genital cutting lies at the heart of both organizations.  For as long as there have been law codes, charters and constitutions, courts have been the place of last resort where those who have been aggrieved can seek justice.  Courts have been the place where statutes that violate human rights have been struck down and where previously unrecognized rights have been recognized.  Throughout the history of jurisprudence, courts have been one of the most important tools that civilized societies have to insure justice and equality for every citizen within their jurisdiction.  On May 7th, 2012, it was one regional court in Cologne, Germany that issued the ruling that we now commemorate every May 7th as the Worldwide Day of Genital Autonomy.

The essential holding of the Cologne ruling is that “a [medically unnecessary] circumcision, ‘even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered [a] bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent.'”

The essential fact of the Cologne ruling is that it was symbolic: it had little or no practical effect because the German Bundestag shortly thereafter passed legislation explicitly permitting non-therapeutic penile circumcision – legislation that, of course, superseded the ruling. 

The essential significance of the ruling, however, is that it represented the first time that a legally-instituted body officially recognized that people with penises actually have a right to decide for themselves what part of their penises they may keep and what part gets cut off.  It was the first time that a court recognized that non-therapeutic penile circumcision is a harm in and of itself and that, when imposed on a child without his consent, his right not to be physically harmed is violated.  Thus, while this may have been one legal decision by one regional court with little or no practical effect, for the genital autonomy movement it was the legal shot heard round the world.

The deeper significance, then, of the Cologne ruling is that it transcended the personal interests of the child whose medically unnecessary penile circumcision led prosecutors to bring charges against the physician who had committed it.  The Cologne ruling was a vindication of the rights not only of that child but of every child born with a penis.  And, although the Cologne ruling pertained strictly to penile circumcision, the Worldwide Day of Genital Autonomy, to its credit, regards the right to genital autonomy as universal, meaning that it is a right that belongs to every human being irrespective of sex, gender, nationality, religion and irrespective of the particular shape or structure of an individual’s genitals.

The concept of universal human rights is important not only because it means that the rights apply to everyone equally but because the concept itself provides a moral framework in which each of us can extrapolate from our own unique situations to those of others from whom we differ.  That is why WWDOGA seeks to bring together advocates from every genital autonomy movement: not just those of us working to end male genital cutting but those working to end female genital cutting and intersex genital cutting, too.  Likewise, we at GALDEF believe in the universality of the cause of genital autonomy and we also recognize the strategic importance of making common cause with other genital autonomy movements.  This is reflected in our Values Statement in which GALDEF expresses its “solidarity with female and interesex victims of genital cutting. . . .”  

Sooner or later the world will recognize what the regional court in Cologne recognized eleven years ago.  Either there is a fundamental right to genital autonomy that applies to everyone regardless of sex or there isn’t.  And, if there is, sooner or later that right must be recognized by unbiased courts in the constitutions and statutes that already exist or it must be enshrined in constitutional amendments or codified in new legislation.  Whatever course this campaign takes and however long it takes, GALDEF will be fighting for the right of every child to grow up with their genitals uncut, unharmed and intact. 



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