Protect newborns, not an ancient ritual

By Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (NY Daily News)
August 2, 2013

This year’s mayoral race has a canary in the mine — an issue affecting a small number of people that can determine whether the character of the mayoral candidates will be toxic to the city’s health.

The controversy concerns metzitzah b’peh , an obscure ritual practiced by a small segment of the Orthodox Jewish community. It is conducted at the time of ritual circumcision, but is a separate practice involving the removal of a drop of blood from the circumcised penis b’peh, or by mouth.

When this practice originated centuries ago, it was thought to keep the wound clean. Today, we know that it triples or quadruples the risk infants will contract herpes, which can cause serious illness or death.

Between 2000 and 2011, 11 infants contracted herpes when ritual circumcisers, known as mohalim, placed their mouths directly on a child’s circumcision wound, according to the New York City Health Department. Ten of the infants were hospitalized, at least two developed brain damage, and two died.

From a public health perspective, this isn’t a close call. Many medical organizations oppose the practice — including the Israel Ambulatory Pediatric Association, the Infectious Disease Society of America, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others.

The vast majority of Jews around the world have also rejected metzitzah b’peh as unsafe, unsanitary and unacceptable; it is now practiced only by a minority of Orthodox mohalim. In stark contrast, the ritual of circumcision itself has been deemed safe by numerous medical authorities when performed by a trained mohel or medical professional. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics affirmed the procedure’s health benefits.

So why is this a flashpoint in the mayoral election, where all the candidates are ostensibly supportive of saving babies’ lives?

Some parents who use mohalim that practice metzitzah b’peh are not aware that this practice will be performed until they see it taking place. And even many who know the practice will occur are not aware of its possible deleterious effects.

As a consequence, in September 2012, the city’s Board of Health, under the direction of Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, required mohalim to obtain informed written consent from parents prior to the performance of the practice on their newborns.

Given the compelling public-health reasons for this regulation, one would expect mayoral candidates to support it wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, that does not turn out to be the case.

At a May forum, City Controller John Liu said he would overturn the practice and defer to the rabbis. While Public Advocate Bill de Blasio acknowledged there are health concerns, he promised to “start over” with a policy that’s “fair.” Council Speaker Christine Quinn defended the consent form — but criticized the Health Department for insufficient public engagement, notwithstanding that the department convened a public comment period from June 5 to July 23, 2012.

Republicans Joe Lhota and John Catsimatidis were both quoted in the Jewish Daily Forward as supporting informed consent by parents — but within a few days, both backtracked in the Jewish Press. Lhota said he intended to study it further, and Catsimatidis’ representative said (in the newspaper's words) he "didn’t come clear on the issue yet."

How can some candidates seeking a role of such great responsibility consider overturning a regulation that protects newborn babies, while others obfuscate their position on it?

The reason is obvious. The community that engages in metzitzah b’peh comprises what is thought to be a crucial voting bloc. The hope of the candidates who have chosen not to stand behind the regulation is that this bloc will follow their rabbis and favor the candidate most opposed to the city’s rule.

But candidates who resist this sensible regulation are placing their self-interest in obtaining votes over the well-being of newborn babies. Such a choice should give all voters pause.

Schonfeld is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of conservative rabbis.