Protect the babies first from risks of circumcision rite

NY Daily News Editorial Board
March 1, 2015

Confronting adamant resistance to public health measures from ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders, Mayor de Blasio conceded that the community’s infant boys will continue to take their chances of contracting a potentially deadly herpes virus.

Transmission can occur during a circumcision rite known as metitzah b’peh. The circumciser — called a mohel — cuts the foreskin, then sucks the blood off a newborn’s penis.

While believers view the ritual as an exercise of faith, the Centers for Disease Control says the oral contact more than triples newborns’ infection risk.

The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has linked the practice to 17 infections — four of them in 2014 alone — leaving two boys with brain damage and two others dead.

Despite that toll, some rabbis have disputed the connection between the ritual and infections, and overwhelmingly they fought a Bloomberg-era Board of Health regulation requiring parents to sign a consent form before such a circumcision.

Challenged in court as an intrusion on religious freedom, the rule was actually a light-handed attempt to minimize a threat to newborns. Regardless, mohels appear to have widely ignored it.

Throughout his career, de Blasio has enjoyed ultra-Orthodox support. As a candidate, he promised to rework the regulation. As mayor, correctly stating that it had gone unenforced and is likely unenforceable, he is moving for repeal after reaching an agreement with community leaders that, for the first time in memory, relies on the public to carry out even partial public health measures.

Rather than order mohels to use pipettes to suction away blood — a direction sure to be challenged in court — de Blasio will allow them to continue unfettered until after an infant contracts herpes.

At that point, if the rabbis produce the mohel, as the mayor’s plan contemplates, and if that mohel tests positive, and if the DNA of his strain of the virus matches that of the infant, then, the rabbis promise, they would ban that mohel from performing circumcisions.

Even after all those if s, it would still be tough luck for the baby.

If, on the other hand, the mohel’s herpes strain did not match the infant’s, the Health Department says it would urge him to step aside — but he would still be permitted to go on with circumcisions while infected with the virus.

For future babies, it would again be tough luck.

Supporters of de Blasio’s approach say that pushing the rabbis toward recognizing a link between metitzah b’peh and herpes infections will be a significant victory. They also say that education programs and voluntary community engagement will eventually produce dividends.

Meanwhile, newborns will be at risk and some may die. And that’s unacceptable.