N.Y.C. Health Board Approves Controversial Circumcision Form
New York City's Board of Health has passed a measure that requires parents to sign a consent form to allow a mohel to perform a Jewish religious circumcision ceremony, called metzizah b'phe, the ABCNews reported.
A metzizah b'phe is when the mohel (a Jewish person who is trained in the practice of brit milah, "covenant of circumcision") sucks blood from the circumcision wound to clean it during a bris, which is a Jewish religious circumcision ceremony preformed on eight-day-old male babies. The ritual is currently in use almost exclusively among Orthodox Jews, with other branches of Judaism using either a mohel with metzizah b'phe or having a doctor do the circumcision.
"The traditional reason for this procedure is to minimize the potential for postoperative complications, although the practice has been implicated in the spreading of herpes to the infant," according to Wikipedia.
The ceremony has caused controversy. Many health experts believe that the procedure is harmful to infants. EDGE reported in March that prosecutors were investigating the death of a two-week-old baby after the newborn allegedly died of herpes contracted as a result of the ritual.
According to the New York Times, New York City officials estimate that metzizah b'peh is used in 3,600 circumcisions a year and the city's health department says that between 2000 and 2011, 11 babies contracted herpes as a result and two died. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the ritual created a risk for transmitting the disease.
The measure, which was supported by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city's medical community, regulates the Jewish ceremony and is the first of its kind in the U.S. Although it would not ban the procedure, many are against the consent form, mostly mohels themselves.
The Jewish Daily Forward noted that last week more than 200 rabbis signed a letter "that accused the department of spreading lies, implying that such a waiver form infringed on their religious freedom." And mohel A. Romi Cohen, 83, told the Times that "he would rather go to jail then comply with the consent requirement."
"If you follow strictly the ritual, there will be no harm to the baby," he said. He added that a circumcision "is a joyous occasion - nothing traumatic about it."
Nevertheless, city health officials claim Cohen's and other mohels' measures before the metzizah b'phe are not enough. According to the Times, Cohen rinses his mouth with Listerine before the procedure, sterilizes his tools, washes his hands with surgical soap and is annually tested for pathogens. The board is still worried about the baby contracting oral herpes, which is present in about 70 percent of New York City's adult population and can kill newborns.
"There is no safe way to perform oral suction on an open wound in a newborn," said Dr. Jay K. Varma, the city's deputy commissioner for disease control.
A member of the Board of Health went further. "It's crazy that we allow this to go on," Dr. Joel Forman, a (Jewish) professor of pediatrics, told the New York Times.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders have vowed to sue the city because it "constitutes an unconstitutional infringement on their religious freedom," the Times noted.
"There is nothing to worry from metzitzah b'peh," the judges wrote, according to a translation by the Chabad Lubavitch movement. "To the contrary, it is very beneficial, even according to the doctors."
But not all Jewish religious leaders agree with the mohels and Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, the president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said he backs the board's decision to require parental consent before the controversial ritual. He told the publication that oral suction is not required by Jewish law and that ritual is "inconsistent with the Jewish tradition's pre-eminent concern with human life and health."
In Germany, officials are dealing with the same issue. Last week, however, State Justice minister Thomas Heilmann announced that infant male circumcision for religious reasons was legal in Berlin, the Associated Press reported.
The issue was raised when a judge in Cologne ruled circumcision not in the best interests of the child. The ruling was only valid in one German state, but it raised protests among Jews and Muslims across Germany. Andrea Merkel, who heads Germany's government, has come out strongly against the ban and made a direct reference to Germany's sensitivity to Jewish practices in light of history.
In August, AP reported that the Conference of European Rabbis is calling for the German government to speed up a measure that would protect the practice of ritual circumcisions after a doctor filed a complaint that accused a rabbi of harming a child.
The organization said that the doctor's complaint "underlines the urgent need for the German government to expedite the process of ensuring that the fundamental rights of minority communities are protected."