The New York City circumcision row

Remember my post last month about Ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis protesting a proposed new law in New York City that would require parents to sign a consent form before the rabbis could practice a form of circumcision where the rabbi uses his mouth to suck the blood from the infant’s bleeding penis?

The city’s reasoning was pretty straightforward.

In the proposal outlining the need for the regulation, the Department of Health stated that between 2004 and 2011, there were 11 confirmed cases of infants contracting herpes simplex virus infection after direct oral suction during a circumcision. Two of those babies died, and at least two others suffered brain damage, the proposal states.

“The parents of some of these infants have said that they did not know before their child’s circumcision that direct oral suction would be performed,” the proposal states. “In addition, since 2004, the Department has received multiple complaints from parents whose children may not have been infected who were also not aware that direct oral suction was going to be performed as part of their sons’ circumcisions.”

In a statement Thursday, City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley called the written consent regulation, “lawful, appropriate and necessary. ”

“The city’s highest obligation is to protect its children; therefore, it is important that parents know the risks associated with the practice,” Farley said.

The city passed the law over the rabbis’ objections and it was due to go into effect on October 21. Now the Central Rabbinical Congress of the USA and Canada, Agudath Israel of America, International Bris Association and three rabbis have gone to court to stop implementation of the law.

Why? Religious freedom of course! Which is interpreted by them as being allowed to do just as they please as long as it is part of their tradition, the health and safety of the baby be damned.

These religious ‘leaders’ can only survive by keeping people ignorant. It will be interesting to see how the courts rule. It seems to me to be an easy decision but one never knows.


  1. sunny says

    Why? Religious freedom of course! Which is interpreted by them as being allowed to do just as they please as long as it is part of their tradition, the health and safety of the baby be damned.

    They fear the loss of power. If certain “traditions” can be questioned, then why not others.

  2. Chiroptera says

    Religious freedom of course!

    Yeah, right.

    In the US, people don’t have the “religious freedom” to perform animal sacrifice or to ingest peyote. I would think that not sucking blood out of an infant’s penis without the parents’ consent would be a no-brainer.

  3. slc1 says

    Parent’s consent, WTF? This practice should be outlawed period, end of discussion. And any Mohel who ignores the law should be given a stretch in the slammer.

  4. says

    It seems to me to be an easy decision but one never knows.

    THe problem is, if the advocates of this regulation THINK it’s an easy decision, they’re less likely to put up a strong, coherent, robust case to back it up. That’s why liberals have such a hard time debunking right-wing insanity: we just take it for granted that “everyone knows” they’re wrong, so we can’t even think along the lines required to explain or justify our position.

    In my junior high school, we had a debate on the merits of slavery, and I was one of the students required to argue FOR slavery. The pro-slavery side won because our opponents just took it for granted that slavery was bad because it was bad, and so they didn’t come up with a really strong case to explain WHY it was bad.

  5. Anonymouse says

    When I was a new parent, my pediatrician advised me to watch the number of people I let kiss my baby on the cheek (hey, he had very chubby, kissable cheeks!) because of fear of infection. There is *no way* I would let a strange man put his mouth on my newborn’s genitals. Jerry Sandusky just went to jail for that--would he have been declared not guilty if he claimed what he did was in the name of religion, too?

  6. jamessweet says

    That’s where I stand too, at least in a perfect world, although sometimes making something illegal can just drive it underground and make it less safe, and I suspect that may be the case here. In any case, it’s a dangerous procedure with no practical purpose to it, performed on an individual incapable of giving consent. Only requiring parental notification seems like we’re really throwing the rabbis a bone here!

  7. says

    Yet oddly, “that would only drive it underground” was never an issue when ALL female genital cutting (no matter how minor, surgical and pain-freed) was outlawed. In fact, after 14 years, in 2010, with no signs of any demand, the American Academy of Pediatrics proposed to allow a token ritual nick to girls “much less extensive than neonatal male genital cutting” and it was publicly howled down and withdrew the policy within a month. Raise the Double Standard high!

  8. darwinharmless says

    The religious freedom argument makes me gag. Whose religion? Whose freedom? Whose penis? If they really believed in religious freedom and choice, they’d give their children a chance to choose. As it is, they are just hypocrites.

    We’ll never get the “God told us to do it” nutters out of the circumcision business, but there’s no reason in the world for ANY doctor to be involved. Performing medically unnecessary surgery on an infant should be grounds for lifting a medical license.

    If you agree, please sign this petition:

    Another Internet petition may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but maybe it is time to make the medical profession accountable too.

    This is just getting started. Let’s help it along.

  9. Corvus illustris says

    This is somewhat off subject and IANAL, but--unless there have been very recent decisions by the Supremes to the contrary--the practices of animal sacrifice and the Peyote Way are protected by the first amendment for the Yoruba religion (Supremes, 1993) and the Native American Church (federal law, 1978), respectively. Of course your local law enforcers may choose to ignore the “supreme law of the land” clause. See Wikipedia s.v. Santería and Peyote for further details, some of which are rather involved. Both of these practices, like circumcision (let alone oral blood removal), do involve some risk to health.

  10. Chiroptera says

    I don’t think it’s off topic at all, since we are discussing whether or not the state has the authority to prevent a particular religious practice for various health reasons.

    I will start off by admitting that I was wrong in those examples. I could have sworn that the court case about animal sacrifice went the other way — so much for my memory.

    But if I may try to save my point:

    I am not a lawyer and have some trouble wading through legalese, but reading the decision in the animal sacrifice case, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v City of Hialeah, I am under the impression that the problem is that the government authorities made it clear that they were singling out that one particular religion and its rituals by including the words “ritual” and “religion” in the wording of the ordinance.

    If I am correct (but IANAL), then the state may enact general laws relating to animal cruelty and health, and general health and safety regulations, and may it apply to religious groups as well as secular ones. (Of course, if a particular cult can conduct its rituals within the bounds set by the laws, well, I guess they score a point.)

    So, the rabbis don’t have an automatic right to preserve their rituals against a general secular law promoting the general welfare; they do have the right not to have a law that is clearly aimed at their particular religious ritual.


    I think the case with the Native American religion is similar. You note that it is a federal statute that protects their peyote ritual. If I recall correctly (and we now have precedent that there is no guarantee that I do), the courts have previously ruled that this Native American ritual has no Constitutional protection against generally applicable drug laws; it is only by the good graces of the government that they are allowed to engage in their ritual for religious purposes.

    I might be wrong about that, though.

  11. EwgB says

    Hello, Mano,

    since this is a post about circumcision, I hope this comment won’t be regarded as off-topic. You had a post some time about a court decision in Germany regarding male circumcision (to which I hope I provided some clarification), and there has been some development on that issue. Now there is a bill proposal going through the proper parliamentary procedures on circumcision (with some protest from the Muslim and Jewish communities), partly reversing the judges decision, but also providing some badly needed clarity. I have been observing it with some interest since its inception and, if you are interested, I might provide you with more details on the specifics of the proposed bill.

  12. EwgB says

    Well, the current proposal as of last Wednesday looks the following way:

    The circumcision has to be done “according to all rules of the medical art”. This also means that the child can get appropriate anesthesia, should there be any need for it. The parents also have to be informed about the possible risks stemming from the procedure and the well-being of the child can’t be in danger (in my opinion a rather ambiguous wording). The procedure has to be performed by a licensed medical practitioner, in the first 6 months of the child’s life this can also be done by a person specifically trained for performing circumcisions (i.e. not an MD).

    In previous discussions on this topic there was also a proposal for a veto right of children above a certain age, but this has disappeared from more recent articles. It may be the case that it has just been left out from the summary in the article, but it’s also possibly that this has been (unfortunately) left out of the bill itself, since this was one of the main points of contention for the Jewish and Muslim communities.

    The latest development on this case came just yesterday. The German Trade Association of Pediatricians (Berufsverband der Kinder- und Jugendärzte) has criticized the bill for catastrophic disregard of children’s rights, specifically for bodily integrity. They added that in Germany, the child’s right to bodily integrity takes third place after parent’s and religious rights. The president of the associations said that he will do all he can so that the bill will not get any majority in the parliament, and that a medically unnecessary and religiously motivated procedure can only be done at the age of religious consent (which is 14 years in Germany) at the explicit wish of the concerned person.

  13. Mano Singham says

    Thanks so much for this update. I hope the German Trade Association of Pediatricians is successful in their efforts.

  14. EwgB says

    Well, I’m kinda torn on the issue of this law. On the one hand it certainly doesn’t go far enough for my taste, but on the other hand it is better than the situation right now. And a law that is much harder on religious circumcision is not going to get far in Germany because the Central Council of Jews in Germany has (for understandable historical reasons) quite some clout in Germany and they already don’t really like the current proposal. So at the moment the issue is basically a choice between a law that is halfway there (I’m personally all for informing parents and only letting properly prepared people do the procedure) and no law at all.


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