At a hearing yesterday in Queens, New York City rabbis defended a controversial circumcision practice that has been blamed for infecting infants with herpes, in some cases causing their death.
The practice, called “metzitzah b’peh,” requires the circumciser, or mohel, to suck the infant’s wounds after circumcision, and has led to at least two cases of infant death in New York since 2000. The city wants to amend the health law to require mohels to obtain written consent from parents indicating they are fully aware of the risks involved in the ritual circumcision, or bris.
“I myself have performed 25,000 circumcisions, and, thank God, we have not had one single incident … our guidelines are, I think, much stricter than the medical profession,” said Rabbi A. Romi Cohn, a mohel and a Holocaust survivor who represented the American Board of Ritual Circumcision at the hearing.
But Cohn admitted that some people who are not certified according to Jewish law masquerade as mohels in order to make money, sometimes as much as $500 to $1,000 per bris.
“This is completely forbidden, but unfortunately they are doing it,” Cohn said. “These people don’t know what sterility means. They don’t know about infection. We try to tell parents that if they choose a circumciser, he should be board-certified.”
Mohels argued the city’s proposed changes would infringe on their religious freedom, but city health officials are pushing back.
“The concept of informed consent puts more of the decision-making power and more of the information in the hands of the parents,” said Susan Blank, the assistant commissioner of the STD Control Program at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Blank said she was confused by rabbis’ opposition, which she argued allowed them their religious freedom while simultaneously allowing parents greater control over their child’s welfare.
“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,” according to a notice from the New York City Board of Health.
The city’s interference in the ritual could lead to legal action, the mohels said.
“Being a mohel is a religious status…I cannot follow an outside authority,” said Rabbi Levi Heber, the director of the International Bris Association.
Heber said that if the city enacted the proposed amendment the mohels would take legal action to stop it.
“If we feel that our religious freedom is being restricted, we have the right to challenge it in court … we are ready, if needed, to challenge this,” he said.
The Board of Health plans to reach a decision on the proposal in September.
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