July 7th, 2012
08:34 PM ET

Circumcision ritual under fire in New York due to risk of herpes infection

By Pauline Kim, CNN

New York (CNN)– A controversial Jewish circumcision ritual is under fire after allegedly causing the deaths of two infants and exposing potentially thousands more to the risk of herpes infections.

New York City health officials are pushing a proposed regulation that would require parents to sign a consent waiver before they take part in a circumcision ritual called "metzitzah b'peh," typically practiced by ultra-Orthodox Jews. The ritual potentially poses a fatal risk to newborns, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The legislation was proposed at a Board of Health meeting last month by Dr. Jay K. Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control for New York City's health department, after 11 infants contracted neonatal herpes between November 2000 and December 2011, after the circumcision ritual. Two of the infants died.

Jews regularly practice circumcision as part of their religion, but mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews practice metzitzah b'peh, during which the mohel, or person performing the procedure, orally sucks the blood from the infant's newly circumcised penis.

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The numbers reported came to light as the city's health department launched an investigation after the infant deaths were reported in New York, the most recent in September in Brooklyn.

The health department reported last month that an estimated 20,493 infants in New York City were exposed to direct oral suction. Baby boys who were reportedly circumcised "with confirmed or probable orogenital suction" between April 2006 and December 2011 had an estimated risk of contracting neonatal herpes (HSV-1) infection of 24.4 per 100,000 cases, making the risk 3.4 times greater than those infants who did not have direct oral suction, according to the health department findings.

In a statement advising New York parents to refrain from direct oral-genital suction during circumcision, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said, "There is no safe way to perform oral suction on any open wound in a newborn.

"Parents considering ritual circumcision need to know that circumcision should only be performed under sterile conditions, like any other procedures that create open cuts, whether by mohelim or medical professionals."

Reports of infant herpes infections and deaths are not new.

In November of 2004, the Department of Health reported that twin male infants contracted neonatal herpes after the ritual circumcision, one of whom died.

Spokesman Jerry Schmetter of the Brooklyn Defense Attorney's office said a criminal investigation regarding a rabbi who was linked to infant herpes cases, was "still ongoing."

In the case of the Brooklyn infant's death in September, the parents of the baby refused to tell authorities who performed the ritual.

The United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg in Brooklyn could not be reached for comment.

Jeffrey Mazlin, a certified mohel and physician in New York who regularly practices circumcision procedures, said "only the more orthodox, the more traditional mohels" perform the metzitzah b'peh.

"[Orthodox Jews] look at it in terms of religion being more important than the individual, whereas someone who is more liberal will make sure that the individual's rights are taken care of," he said.

But the ritual is not just an upholding of a Jewish tradition, but also a firm reminder of their beliefs.

"Because blood is the life-giving element, they believe that it's supposed to be part of the whole procedure," Mazlin said.

The little blood that is drawn from the newly circumcised penis is usually left alone or wiped away under regular procedures, he said.

"There are no known medical benefits to sucking [the blood]," he said.

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Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of Talmudic Law and Bioethics at Yeshiva University, dismissed any defense of the practice, calling it "primitive nonsense."

"[The ritual] has nothing to do with religion. It's only their customs. But they've managed to convince the city that it's a violation of their religious freedoms."

Tendler notes that there is an alternative to the metzitzah b'peh in which a mohel doesn't use his mouth directly, but uses a sterilized glass tube or pipette to suck the blood from the wound, which many modern orthodox Jews have started to incorporate during their circumcision rituals.

The Jewish tradition of circumcision rituals originate from Scripture, in which God tells Abraham that all men must be circumcised eight days after they are born.

"Hundreds of years ago, they didn't know that you can get an infection by sucking the blood. So they were not concerned," said professor Arthur Hyman of Yeshiva University.

Dr. Daniel S. Berman, an infectious disease specialist, has defended the practice, arguing in a paper published in the Jewish journal Dialogue that there is still no evidence that metzitzah b'peh directly caused any of the reported infant herpes infections.

Berman even attributes racial bias in the New York City government as the reason behind the proposed mandate for the parent consent waiver.

Berman's opinion does not appear to be representative of the larger medical community. He could not be reached for comment Friday by CNN.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York could not be reached for comment.

Last week, a court in Germany outlawed circumcision on infants with the exception of medical purposes.

The ruling came after the case of a Muslim couple whose 4-year-old son was hospitalized after a circumcision procedure.

The Department of Health is accepting public comments on the proposed regulation until a public hearing July 23. At the hearing, there will be a public forum where the board will consider all comments and make a final vote September 13.

- shirleyhenrycnn

Filed under: Judaism • New York

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  6. Marlou Ordelt

    Mid Eastern religions suck anyway...

    July 26, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  7. Steve Johnson

    If Jews want to suck the blood out of their babies wieners, then I say more power to them. This is a totally reasonable activity in the modern world.

    July 26, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  8. James Anderson

    Must white people stick their noses in everyone's business? White culture is not the greatest culture in the world, you know. Other cultures are just as fine. Jewish culture, for example, even after all the pogroms and their small population of a few million, is still alive and thriving. Whatever their culture does, it is working for them. Let them be, and stop trying to force the idea of aryan cultural supremacy on all other cultures.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  9. Milton

    Let's try this thought experiment and replace "foreskin" with most any other body part. Imagine if we had a religious our pseudo-scientific reason for cutting off an infant's left big toe on males shortly after birth. No doubt the arguments would go like this:

    I never cried about it. I've gotten through life fine without my big toe. What's the big deal?

    I'm just glad I don't have to go through life with the embarrassment of two big toes instead of just one.

    Now that my big toe is removed, there is abundant clinical scientific evidence that the incidence of big toe cancer is 50% lower. I also have a 50% reduction in getting gout in my big toe and the incidence of broken big toes is 50% less than those that choose not to have the medically safe procedure. If we went through life with both of our big toes, the rates of big toe cancer, gout, and big toe bone breakage would skyrocket. It's really dumb not to do this.

    I only get half the toe jam of guys that are unfortunate enough not to get their left big toe cut off. I'm so glad I don't have to smell gross like them.

    My girlfriend likes asymmetrical feet so much better. Thanks Mom and Dad.

    Why is someone always trying to restrict my religious freedoms that requires that I cut the toe off of my son? This is a free country isn't it? If I want to cut the big toe off of my infant son, what right do other's have to say differently?

    Well I had my big toe cut off. What was good enough for me is good enough for my son. I run and walk the same as if I still had it so who cares?

    July 16, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • ME II

      I think the oral procedure described here is unnecessary, unhealthy, and just disgusting, however, it is not completely unreasonable to have male babies circu.mcised.

      " In circu.mstances in which there are potential benefits and risks, yet the procedure is not essential to the child's current well-being, parents should determine what is in the best interest of the child."

      "Lack of male circu.mcision has also been associated with se.xually transmitted genital ulcer disease and chlamydia, infant urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and cervical cancer in female partners of uncircu.mcised men [1]. "

      But it is not so beneficial that the AAP recommends that every male get cut routinely.

      July 17, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  10. SRA

    Robert, that's the whole problem. You are absolutely right about evolution – patriarchy and a million other social ills are the result of human beings following blind instinct and doing what they are biologically inclined to do rather than using their brains.

    We are not apes anymore, and we can't treat kids like property if we expect adults to be treated like human beings.

    July 12, 2012 at 1:49 am |
  11. mark

    OK, now I think I'll go retch. The law should state that anyone touching a child in this way is beheaded using paper cuts, one after another.

    July 11, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  12. Robert

    It's utter arrogance to believe that mutilating your child is OK because some bronze age myth says so. As a society, we look down our noses at the customs of those we disagree with as barbaric and primative as we engage in primative barbaric rituals ourselves. It just goes to show you that many of us are not that far removed from the primates we evolved from.

    July 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.