The New York Times reported this week that local health officials proposed that Orthodox Jewish parents be required to sign a consent waiver before they can take part in a controversial circumcision ritual that is believed to have led to the deaths of at least two babies in the city over the past decade.
The proposal "represents an escalation of the city’s efforts" to curtail the ancient Jewish procedure of metzitzah b’peh, in which an adult male, usually the circumciser, places his mouth directly on the wound created by the removal of the infant’s foreskin to suck away the blood, according to the newspaper.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that from 2000 to 2011, 11 newborn babies in New York contracted the herpes simplex virus after the ritual. Ten of those babies were hospitalized; two suffered brain damage, and two died.
Based on those findings, the New York Times said, the city’s health department issued a statement "strongly urging" that direct oral-genital suction not be performed during circumcision. It also announced that a number of hospitals had agreed to distribute a pamphlet to parents considering at-home circumcision, warning them of the risks, the report said.
The New York Times report said that Dr. Jay K. Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control for the health department, proposed that the Board of Health require all parents who want direct oral suction to be used to sign a consent form indicating that they are aware of the risk of infection.
The mohel, or ritual circumciser, would distribute the consent forms to parents before the circumcision and keep them on hand for at least a year, according to the proposal.
The New York Times said oral suction is no longer a part of most Jewish circumcisions, but among the more than 250,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York area, the ritual remains commonplace.
The report said ultra-Orthodox authorities have strongly defended the practice as a religious right. Some rabbis argue that there is not enough evidence to show that the procedure causes infection, while others say the practice is important enough that it should be continued anyway, the New York Times reported.
Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel, an umbrella group for many ultra-Orthodox organizations, was quoted by the New York Times as saying this week that the group wanted to study the proposed regulation before commenting on it. In March, the organization’s executive vice president, Rabbi David Zwiebel, warned that regulating the practice could drive it underground, making it more risky.
According to the report, Dr. Varma said that two of the families whose babies got herpes after the ritual had told health authorities that they were unaware beforehand that it would be performed. He said distressed families had called, as recently as two weeks ago, saying they did not know their mohel would place his mouth on their infant’s wound, and wanting to know what could be done.
“Since we are regulating how part of a religious procedure is done, this will be heavily scrutinized by legal experts, and it may be challenged at some point,” he was quoted by the New York Times as saying. “But we feel we are on very firm legal ground, because there is a compelling interest on behalf of the city in protecting the health of infants.”