An ancient circumcision ritual commonplace in parts of New York City's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is under close watch by the city’s health department, concerning a practice the department believes could spread venereal diseases to infants, says the New York Times.
The process, known in Hebrew as metzitzah b’peh, involves the rabbi putting his mouth on the infant's penis, post-circumcision, in order to draw blood away from the wound. The main worry is oral herpes, which 70 percent of the city’s adult population carries.
In fact, according to the health department, between 2000 and 2011, 11 babies contracted herpes as a result of the ritual, and two of them died.
This spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that the procedure was "not safe" and created a risk for transmission of herpes: “There is no safe way to perform oral suction on an open wound in a newborn,” said Dr. Jay K. Varma, the city’s deputy commissioner for disease control.
As a result, Mayor Bloomberg pushed through legislation requiring parents sign a consent form before the procedure is done on their child. And on Thursday, the New York City Board of Health voted to approved the new law.
But the new law is provoking outcries from some in the Orthodox Jewish community who see it as an encroachment on their religious freedom. “This is the government forcing a rabbi practicing a religious ritual to tell his congregants it could hurt their child,” Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, told ABC News.
But city health officials believe that the health precautions for metzitzah b’peh, which include rinsing with Listerine before the procedure, sterilizing tools, scrubbing hands with surgical soap and being tested annually for pathogens, are simply not enough.
And while some in the Orthodox Jewish community see this legislation as an attack, others in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn say they are fine going along with the new law.
“We have no problem with signing it; the mayor felt he was protecting us,” said Rabbi Shea Hecht, chairman of the board of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education. “It does not hurt anybody, but I’m not so sure it’s helping anybody either, because you sign the consent, and then what? Does the health issue stop?"
According to the Times, the new law would not affect the way most Jewish ritual circumcisions are performed nor would it ban the practice. But circumcisers who do not comply with administering consent forms and getting them signed by parents before the procedure could face warning letters or fines.
“Perhaps what [Bloomberg] should have said is that circumcisers get themselves checked that they don’t have herpes. That would have been a much better law,” said Hecht. “Don’t attack the circumcision, target the circumciser."