NYC mayor caves in to Orthodox Jews and risks children’s lives

In some Orthodox Jewish circles, it is the practice for infant boys to be circumcised, not by a doctor in sanitary conditions, but by a religious person known as a mohel who then sucks out some blood from the penis with his mouth. This extremely unhygienic practice can lead, and has led, to serious infections, and “City health officials linked 17 cases of neonatal herpes to direct oral suction in the last 15 years. Of those, two have died and two more suffered brain damage.”

Often the parents of the children are not aware of the health risks and so New York City’s health department passed rules that required them to be told so that they could give informed consent. (I wrote about this back in 2012.)

This policy would seem like a no-brainer except that of course when it comes to religion, even the slightest restriction on their behavior is seen as a monstrous infringement on their religious freedom. Religious leaders sued. The Jewish community in New York has considerable clout with successive mayors pandering to them and the current mayor Bill di Blasio is no exception and he has apparently agreed to drop the informed consent requirement and settle the lawsuit.

The reasoning by the di Blasio administration is extraordinary. They say that it is because the religious leaders are not complying with the city ordinance and they are helpless to enforce it.

In exchange for abandoning the consent forms, which were really never enforceable, the coalition of rabbis negotiating with City Hall agreed that if a baby is diagnosed with H.S.V.-1, the community would identify the mohel who performed the bris, or circumcision, and ask him to undergo testing. If the mohel tests positive for H.S.V.-1, the city’s health department will test the D.N.A. of the herpes strain to see if it matches the infant’s.

If it does, the mohel will be banned from performing the ritual for life. If it doesn’t, the health department will work to find the source of the virus. If that source can’t be identified, there are no rules in place to keep that mohel from performing metzitzah b’peh, even though he has tested positive for H.S.V.-1.

The de Blasio administration’s rationale for the new policy, which its own health department says could put infants at risk, is that this is the only way it can receive cooperation from the community. In the two-plus years since the health department has required consent forms, it has collected only one, an administration official said.

“They won’t stop practicing no matter what we say,” the de Blasio official said. “If we ban it, it will go underground.”

Practically, that may be true, but that doesn’t stop the city’s health department from requiring restaurant employees to wash their hands after using the restroom, a regulation that is also hard to enforce.

This is blatant pandering, putting the health and lives of infants at risk in order to placate the unhygienic practices of religious extremists.


  1. Mano Singham says

    Because I think it is enforceable but the mayor is using that as an excuse to placate the rabbis.

  2. says

    “They won’t stop practicing no matter what we say,” the de Blasio official said. “If we ban it, it will go underground.”

    For all practical purposes, it already is underground: it’s being performed by people in isolated communities, far from the eyes of any outsiders. DeBlasio could have at least supported these rules to make a public statement about this practice; but he didn’t even have the spine for that.

  3. anat says

    Somehow mainstream Orthodox Jews (and those non-Orthodox Jews who practice circumcision) managed to shift to a modified version, where the blood is suctioned through a tube. I don’t see why a religious community that is OK with technological solutions to difficulties caused by religious practices in other areas insists on this one. Orthodox Judaism has a long history of following expert advice in the area of medicine (and having medically-trained people in positions of religious leadership). I don’t quite get it. I suppose such regressive adherence shows this particular group to be on a reactionary path, responding to a perceived threat on their unique identity.

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