Last week, New York City hospitals agreed to distribute pamphlets to parents thinking of having their newborn sons circumcised in accordance with the ancient Metzitzah B’peh ritual. The pamphlets were written to warn parents of the severe risk of infection the process carries with it. (The extremely Orthodox ritual involves a rabbi, the mohel, using his mouth to suck the blood away from the former site of the foreskin. Unsurprisingly, there’s a huge risk of transmitting infection, particularly the herpes simplex type 1, virus, which is said to be responsible for two infant deaths and a number of incidents of brain damage.)
This week, the New York City Board of Health announced its next step. They’re proposing parents who intend to submit to the practice to sign a waiver indicating they are aware of and, to some degree, cool with the risk of infection. The 3,600 newborn boys who undergo Metzitzah B’peh every year, are 300% more likely to contract herpes than those who don’t.
Dr. Jay Varma, the deputy commissioner for disease control for the health department, who is behind the proposal had the following to tell reporters: “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. 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.” The executive vice president of Agudath Israel, an ultra-Orthodox organization, has said that putting regulations on the practice is likely to be counter-intuitive. Those who want to abide by the tradition are likely to go resort to back alley Metzitzah B’peh circumcisions, making the procedure that much more dangerous, he said.
As for the proposed waiver (the language of which is to be written by health officials), a spokesman for Agudath Israel said they are reserving judgement until they’ve studied the actual waiver.