The New York City board of health has voted unanimously to require parents to sign a consent form before allowing a mohel to perform metztizah b’peh, direct oral-genital suction during circumcision.
The vote was 9-0 to require parental consent for direct oral suction, a practice employed only by ultra-Orthodox mohels that can lead to transmission of a strain of herpes to which infants are especially vulnerable. Though transmission rates are believed to be low, If infected, babies can suffer brain damage or even death.
“We’re not banning the procedure, we’re not regulating how circumcisions are performed,” Jay K. Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control for the health department said after the meeting. “We’re simply requiring that people understand there is a risk, and if people want their baby to be circumcised, they have to understand that this procedure might potentially transmit an infection that is both serious as well as life threatening.”
There are no mandatory penalties imposed if the waivers are not signed. But the health commission may impose penalties at its own discretion. Varma said the department would respond to public complaints and investigate the claims, and that repercussions could range from a phone call or a formal warning letter, to fines of up to $2,000 for each violation.
Despite the unanimous approval, during the meeting board members, who are appointed by the mayor, voiced their concerns about the forms and the potential of limiting religious freedom. Board member Sandro Galea referred to the waivers as a “tricky issue,” and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the department had worked hard to protect infants and respect religious traditions at the same time. He also took note of calls from the Orthodox Jewish community to delay the vote, but said that would be inappropriate and essentially doing nothing on the matter. Farley did say that he hoped to continue dialogue with critics past today.
Three protestors gathered outside of the hearing at the Department of Health building in Long Island City to denounce the decision. Rabbi William Handler, leader of Traditional Bris Milah, a self-proclaimed group formed to “protect Jewish ritual circumcision,” provided orange flyers that accused Mayor Bloomberg and Farley of instigating “Blood Libel.”
“The puppets all danced to the tune of the puppet master,” said Handler, referring to the health board and the mayor. “What this is, is the first step in completely taking away traditional bris milah from the Jewish people in New York City.”