Ancient, too, are laws banning circumcision; many of these laws were passed for an anti-Jewish purpose. King Antiochus IV, of Syria, the occupying power of the Holy Land in 170 B.C. decreed that circumcision was unlawful and punishable by death. Emperor Hadrian, when the Holy Land was part of the Roman Empire decreed laws that prohibited circumcision in 132 A.D. Emperor Constantine, in 320 A.D. forbade Jews from circumcising non-Jews for any purpose. Genesis 17:12 commands that Jews must circumcise their slaves; Constantine's law prohibited that practice.
Circumcision has traditionally been presumed legal under British law. One 1999 case, Re J (child's religious upbringing and circumcision) (see  ) said that circumcision in Britain required the consent of all those with parental responsibility, or the permission of the court, acting for the best interests of the child, and issued an order prohibiting the circumcision of a male child of a non-practicing Muslim father and non-practicing Christian mother with custody. The reasoning included a preponderance of medical evidence that circumcision would cause more medical risk than it would avoid; that the operation would be likely to weaken the relationship of the child with his mother, who strongly objected to circumcision without medical necessity; that the child may be subject to ridicule by his peers as the odd one out and that the operation would irreversibly reduce sexual pleasure, by permanently removing some sensory nerves, even though cosmetic foreskin restoration might be possible. The court did not rule out circumcision against the consent of one parent. It cited a hypothetical case of a Jewish mother and an agnostic father with a number of sons, all of whom, by agreement, had been circumcised as infants in accordance with Jewish laws; the parents then have another son who is born after they have separated; the mother wishes him to be circumcised like his brothers; the father, for no good reason, refuses his agreement. In such a case, a decision in favor of circumcision was said to be likely.
In recent years many have argued that male circumcision may be illegal under international human rights law. Article 24.3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that State Parties must "take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children..." Although some argue that male circumcision may fall under "traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children," the procedural debate in connection with the Convention indicates its exclusion.
In the United States, the parents' right to raise their child in their religious faith is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Although no case has addressed the point precisely, the relative commonness of the procedure for medical, cultural, and hygienic reasons would indicate that preventing circumcision in the context of a religious practice would not pass constitutional muster in the United States. [Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)] Although parents are given wide latitude in child rearing, parental discretion is not unlimited in religious matters. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that, "[p]arents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves." (Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944).
A non-binding research paper of the Queensland Law Reform Commission (Circumcision of Male Infants) concluded that "On a strict interpretation of the assault provisions of the Queensland Criminal Code, routine circumcision of a male infant could be regarded as a criminal act", and that doctors who perform circumcision on male infants may be liable to civil claims by that child at a later date. No prosecutions have occurred in Queensland, and circumcisions continue to be performed.
Action groups have focused legislative action in various jurisdictions to obtain either court or legislatures to ban circumcision, including in Sweden, Denmark, and North Dakota. In no instance has a total ban been enacted, but the circumcision of minors in Sweden has been restricted to only be performed under anaesthesia.