Regulating the ritual practice of a small number of New Yorkers is hardly the top priority of the city’s new mayor, nor should it be, not with the myriad of challenges facing Bill de Blasio, who is slowly remaking city government after 12 years of Michael Bloomberg’s highly successful, though occasionally problematic tenure. But neither is this the time for de Blasio to go wobbly on his principles. And one of those fundamental principles is, as he has stated himself, “protecting children’s lives.”
So if there is a practice common among a minority of New Yorkers that is proven to sometimes cause serious injury or even death to infants, wouldn’t the new mayor want to curtail that practice? Or at least ensure that parents are informed of its consequences? And if a child has been harmed, wouldn’t the mayor want to help his administration investigate who might have caused the injury or death?
The answers to all these questions ought to be yes.
So far, the de Blasio administration has only said no comment.
The practice in question is metzitzah b’peh, in which a mohel performing a brit milah, or ritual circumcision, uses his mouth to suction blood from the open wound he has just made when he removed the foreskin from the penis of an 8-day-old boy. Once it was routinely part of the brit milah — an effective technique for stemming blood flow — but Jews started abandoning the practice about 150 years ago, when safer, more sterile alternatives were sanctioned to clean the wound. Now only some devoutly Orthodox Jews continue to believe that it is absolutely necessary.
It is, however, dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control has concluded that male infants circumcised with confirmed or probable oral sunction are at 3.4 times greater risk for infection than the baby boys whose circumcision was performed more safely. This is because the mouth is a robust home for herpes simplex virus, commonly expressed by cold sores — an easily transmitted, difficult-to-track virus that can cause serious brain injury and even death in vulnerable infants.
Fourteen babies in New York City have contracted herpes following metzitzah b’peh since 2000; two died, two others suffered brain damage. The latest victim was hospitalized in January.