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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

soundoff (643 Responses)
  1. Smarshall

    Time to end this barbaric ritual to men. Let the man decide not the parents. End MGM now.

    July 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • Greg

      Agreed.

      July 11, 2012 at 1:07 am |
  2. mack

    You can get away with most anything if you pull the "religious practice" card.

    July 10, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  3. Alh

    Let the individual determine this procedure for himself.

    July 10, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • BFD

      Why?

      July 10, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Greg

      @BFD: Men should have a right to their own bodies, and having someone else cut off part of a man's body violates his rights as an individual. Many men are very negatively affected by this procedure. It is unfortunately the case that our society disregards this right, and doctors or religious leaders won't tell you any of the negatives. It's very sad that today we still tolerate such barbarism.

      July 10, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Take your Zanax

      Let me guess – Greg is one of those poor little fairies who's parents had him castrated, (sorry, wishful thinking there) circ umciszed, so now he's an outcast among all his turtlenecked-dick butt buddies. One might even say that Greg is the "butt of their jokes."

      So spread the word, Greg!

      Er... stop that.

      I said spread the word, not spread your ass crack.

      July 10, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  4. James

    Piper's son, like many other partially rational beings, is willing to condemn all insanity except his own. Support for this barbarism reveals that early indoctrination will trump common sense much of the time.

    July 10, 2012 at 1:34 am |
    • b4bigbang

      Studies in Africa, where HIV infection is an extremely serious public health issue, the World Heath Organization has found that the rate of HIV infection in circu mcised males is 60 percent lower than among uncirc umcised males. As a consequence, the organization had said that circu mcision is a valuable weapon in fighting HIV infection.

      http://www.thenewamerican.com/culture/faith-and-morals/item/11885-german-court-circ umcision-of-young-boys-const itutes-illegal-bodily-harm

      July 10, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • Greg

      My comments don't seem to show up (great message board). @b4bigbang A couple of points. Firstly, there are serious problems with the HIV study (search this; I can't seem to attach the link). Secondly, a newborn doesn't have intercourse. It's a man's body, and he should have choice over what happens to it.

      July 10, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • Chuck

      That's ok Greg. The mods are doing you a favor if your comments sucked that badly.

      July 10, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • Greg

      Seriously, Chuck? Offer something constructive next time. You made a pointless comment.

      July 10, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • Robert

      Interesting that the only study supporting the practice was done in a country where personal hygiene is nearly nonexistent. There is no such study emanating from a civilized country.

      July 20, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
  5. Greg

    It is still baffling to me that we allow this sort of practice on children. It is the 21st Century, and we still have doctors and religious leaders (note: this doesn't just include Jews; Muslims, and other African and Australian aboriginal peoples practice this) pushing to amputate part of a healthy penis from newborn baby boys. If a man believes something in religion, or medicine, then he should have a choice when he is an adult to have it done. Before then it is basically elective surgery, and like other elective surgeries, is barbaric to be done without the patient's consent.

    July 10, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • RhondaJo

      If you feel that way, fine. Don't do it to your children. I'm just wondering why you would want to interfere with my family. MYOB. My son's foreskin is none of your business.

      July 10, 2012 at 7:13 am |
    • mack

      RhondaJo: Because the procedure has recently killed two kids, that's why. Plus, it's really, really bizarre.

      July 10, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • Greg

      @RhondaJo: Parents, including yourself, do not have infinite rights over your kids. Kids are not property; they have rights, too. You're not allowed to perform elective surgery at will just because you feel like it. That's why this is wrong. A man's right to his body is his own, just like a woman, so you should take your hands off of your son's penis. I'm sure your daughter wouldn't appreciate you cutting her, but luckily girls are protected by federal law.

      July 10, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  6. Michael

    ewww. I'd never heard the sucking part before.
    They should lock these sick mohels up with Jerry Sandusky.

    July 10, 2012 at 12:21 am |
  7. cacique

    That surgical procedure should be done once the pacient is able to consent.
    Excusing it behind some obscure religious demand is retrograde and totally unnecessary for a baby. Unless an adult male is able to make his own decision and to give the go ahead to remove his foreskin, the procedure should be deemed not only anachronic and barbaric, but also abusive against a defenseless infant.
    It is time to allow every male to decide about surgically removing his foreskin..

    July 9, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It hurts far more when performed on an adult. In their infancy a child's peripheral nervous system is undeveloped. Your argument is bogus.

      July 9, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • Timmuh

      @Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, No, your argument is bogus. It hurts just as much. Reference your assertions! Let the child decide when they reach the age of consent. Hands off the babies!

      July 9, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2231533/

      July 10, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Although a wide variety of interventions for circu mcision pain have been examined, the individual and relative effectiveness of each has not been systematically assessed. Thus, the apparent reluctance of pract itioners to adopt the regular use of pain interventions for circu mcision may reflect beliefs that the findings of research conducted to date are collectively un-interpretable. At the same time, negative perceptions of the technical and practical difficulties associated with pain interventions may diminish clinician motivation to implement their regular use.

      http://www.nichd.nih.gov/cochrane/bradyfryer/bradyfryer.htm

      July 10, 2012 at 12:48 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Detractors can do as they please with their sons, and I'll do as I please with mine. Don't like it? Get all up in my face about it and see what happens.

      July 10, 2012 at 12:51 am |
    • Robert

      So Tom, your children are your property and you'll do to them as you see fit?

      July 10, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • RhondaJo

      You're another one that's sticking your nose where is doesn't belong. Read my comment to Greg higher up. My kids life and best welfare are certainly my responsibility. You're just another self-righteous liberal nannystater. Move to Germany if you want circmcision banned. The courts in America have already ruled against you in the San Francisco case.

      July 10, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Greg

      @RhondaJo: Your kids are going to grow up to be intactivists. 🙂

      July 11, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  8. korydon

    It's hilarious to read that the German child was hospitalized AFTER the procedure. Infants born in the USA are usually mutilated right after birth ... IN the hospital.

    July 9, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • DasWasser

      You're sick in the brain to find cgm hilarious. Even Juden und Musselmann don't laugh. Hey, try cutting off your left earlobe. Now that's hilarious. Ahahahahahahahahahha!

      July 10, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  9. Lou Cypher

    Why is a reasonably modern country like the US still allowing genital mutilation of infants?
    I mean, seriously, what kind of sick pfhucz are we?

    July 9, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Tom, Tom the Piper's Son

      My wife and I had it done to our son and it wasn't a big deal. The mohel used a sterile glass tube. The ceremony was very nice. Our son didn't even cry.

      July 9, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • GrowUp

      @Tom Tom- bizzaro and sick. Dance around a totem pole instead–just as effective.

      July 10, 2012 at 1:38 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Not my posts, any of these.

      Troll, anyone who's been here for more than two weeks knows that I'm female and straight. I have a husband, not a wife.

      Knock if off.

      July 10, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  10. KJKL

    I am an atheist quarter Jew with a few semi-religious Jewish relatives. As I have said many times before, if you believe that any god told you to let a man peel the skin off of your son's penis and suck the blood out then you are credulous indeed. Smart Jews have generally abandoned the ridiculous ways of Judaism. Luckily my parents are educated, thoughtful people who did not let anybody cut my penis when I was a baby. I feel bad for all the people who grow up in the insular ultra-Orthodox communities in New York, and think of all the good minds that are wasted living according to thoroughly debunked ancient dogmas that will not lead to anything like the great achievements of secular Jews.

    July 9, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  11. BRC

    I really don't have a problem with circamcision. I recognize that it's not necessary, but handled carefuly and safely by medical profesionals, it is a minimally invasice procedure. All that being said, and with due respect to the First Amendment, this practice is absurd, and children should be protected from it.

    If my "God" told me that I had to let an adult put their mouth on my child's genitals, I'd find a new god, and stop talking to any family members I learned allowed this to happen to their child.

    July 9, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  12. Earl

    If there was any doubt, the number of stupid things people can do is infinite. Natural Selection on humans can never end.

    July 9, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  13. Evonix

    So apparently child molestation is legal in NYC if it's under the guise of religion.

    I'm going to start The Church of Holy Crotch, where children of all races and creeds will be welcome as long as I get to mutilate their genitals and suck their blood.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • korydon

      Apparently you mean to convert to Judaism?

      July 9, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  14. George

    You can wrap whatever religious ideology you want to around it or call it any name you want to; it is still genital mutilation. Just because “God” told you to do it does not make it right. I was just following orders is not a legitimate defense in court and it should not be a legitimate defense for mutilating male or female children.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  15. Jerry Sandusky

    I converted immediately after reading this story.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Jerry's Defense Attorney

      Damn! We picked the wrong legal strategy! You would not be in jail if you said you were a mohel.

      July 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  16. PrimeNumber

    In secular society, pregnancy is a disease, and a fetus is a tumor. It can't figure out when a human life begins – at conception or when the fetus is two inches outside the womb. Now it has an opinion IN FAVOR of children?

    July 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What a sniveling little coward you are.

      July 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @PrimeNumber

      Hi Prime...

      Nice 'Strawman' argument. Let's leave it at that.

      Peace...

      July 9, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Ahnold SHWARZENEGGA

      IT'S NOT A TOOMAH

      July 9, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • PrimeNumber

      @ Tom, people who fail life tests of courage tend to be bitter, like you.

      @ Peace@ some I learned 'straw man" arguments from atheists.

      July 9, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • sam

      1) You're a douche.

      2) Your stupid comment has nothing to do with the article, as usual.

      July 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @PrimeNumber

      Hi Prime...

      You Said: " @Peace some I learned 'straw man" arguments from atheists."

      Maybe so... But, if you or anyone, including atheists are going to make an argument, then don't ya' think it would be best to make a sound and accurate argument, so it enlists discussion ?

      Otherwise, you have just lost pretty much all credibility.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      July 9, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If anyone's "failed at life" here, bozo, it's you. That you needed so badly to score a point for your team you posted something that asinine speaks volumes about you. You're right up there in the ranks (and they ARE rank)with HS and just lyin.

      July 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • Fred

      Yeah, I see Tom on here all the time: he trolls the religious topics trying to upset people.
      He's just mad because he's divorced and living in his mom's basement.

      July 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • Hugh7

      So human rights END at birth?

      July 9, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • tallulah13

      This is a time honored christian tactic. Lie about a group of people (or a way of life) in order to create fear and hatred. It is a very sorry reflection on believers and their belief.

      July 10, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • Chuck

      You must be Muslim, talulla. You seem to have a pretty good handle on lying to people to instill fear. Muslims pretty much corner the market on that tactic.

      July 10, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  17. W. MacKenzie

    These perverts should be locked up for this behaviour. This is nothing short of child abuse and warrants equivalent penalties.

    July 9, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  18. Robert

    I was struck by the sentence that indicated Muslims also perform the same ritual. Looks like both the Jewish and Muslim religions have some of the same beliefs. How ironic that two tribes so much at odds with each other have so much in common.

    July 9, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Jeff B.

      Nothing "Ironic" about it.
      The fathers of the 2 religions were brothers.

      July 9, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Jared

      They are at odds with each other because of an old family feud over which son was blessed.

      July 9, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  19. Woody

    "When religion comes in at the door, common sense goes out at the window."
    — Lemuel Washburn

    July 9, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  20. Chris

    I just got sick to my stomach. This practice is sick in more ways than I care to think about. I can't believe that any parent would think that having someone suck blood from there newborns penis is ok.

    July 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • korydon

      I can't believe that any parent would ask someone to mutilate their infant son's penis!

      July 9, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
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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.