N.Y. Board Orders Forms for Circumcision Rite

Health Officials Mandate Parental Consent for Metzitzah B'Peh

No Consent: A demonstrator protests against the New York health board’s decision to require parental consent forms for the controversial circumcision rite metzitzah b’peh.
seth berkman
No Consent: A demonstrator protests against the New York health board’s decision to require parental consent forms for the controversial circumcision rite metzitzah b’peh.

By Seth Berkman

Published September 13, 2012.
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Michael Tobman, a consultant who works with New York Hasidic communities, said in a statement that the Orthodox Jewish community is outraged by the decision.

“We believe today’s action, which is based on the thinnest of contested anecdotal evidence, to be plainly unconstitutional and will be aggressively litigating this shocking governmental overreach,“ he wrote.

Isaac Abraham, a Brooklyn community leader who made a failed bid for City Council, compared New York to Germany, where a court outlawed non-medical circumcisions.

“These are the only two places that have a problem with circumcision” said Abraham.

On Wednesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg met with ultra-Orthodox leaders to discuss the issue. Samantha Levine, deputy press secretary for the mayor’s office, e-mailed a statement to the Forward that said, “we simply continue to disagree and believe parents must be informed of the medical risks associated with the procedure. Ultimately, the City’s highest obligation is to protect its children.”

Levine also emphasized that the health department has not proposed to ban metzitzah b’peh, but the proposal requires mohels to “receive written informed consent, which would provide information about the risks of the procedure, from parents or legal guardians before performing it.”

Last week, more than 200 rabbis signed a letter that accused the department of spreading lies, implying that such a waiver form infringed on their religious freedom. On Tuesday, Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella group, said it would sue the city of New York if the regulation was passed. Other critics said there would be possibilities of civil disobedience if the health department continued to proceed.

Metzitzah b’peh is no longer a regular practice in most Jewish circumcision ceremonies; Jews began abandoning the method approximately 150 years ago. It is most frequently performed in the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community, which has resisted the use of alternative approaches, such as sterile pipettes. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the practice leads to a 3.4 times greater risk for HSV-1 infection.

Handler, of Traditional Bris Milah, disagreed, saying that the health department was acting without a “shred of reliable evidence.”

According to the New York City Department of Health, there have been 11 suspected cases of herpes as a result of metzitzah b’peh in New York City since 2004, with two of the infants dying. Varma proposed the regulation in June and health commission Farley quickly supported the move, publicly calling for an end to metzitzah b’peh.

Like Farley, Varma stressed that the health department would continue dialogue with critics, noting their main goal is to educate those who seek to continue the tradition of metzitzah b’peh.

In the days leading up to the vote, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Bayview Medical Center, publicly supported the health department, while the Rabbinical Council of America, a Modern Orthodox group, disapproved. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, RCA president, described circumcision as a “precious and cherished ritual for the Jewish community” and asked the health department to collaborate with Orthodox Jewish leadership to develop protocols to address health concerns.

Jonathan Zenilman, a top doctor at Johns Hopkins University, addressed a letter to Bloomberg on Tuesday, calling the Aguda’s letter “troubling” and “contradictory.” Zenilman said there was “no doubt that MBP causes risk” within the infectious diseases community. He added that the risk were, in fact, probably underestimated. Zenilman said the Aguda’s objective “is to clearly transmit the perception of doubt, and to use that doubt to impact public health policy.”


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