On Monday of this week, it was reported that two infants in New York had been confirmed as having contracted type 1 herpes, after being subjected to an ultra-orthodox Jewish circumcision ritual. CNN reported on the details:
In the ritual, known as metzitzah b’peh, after removing the foreskin of the penis the person performing the procedure places his mouth briefly over the wound, sucking a small amount of blood out, which is discarded.
To begin with, let me say that this is a barbaric, repulsive ritual that has no place in modern society. Aside from the disturbing implications of an adult engaging in mouth to genital contact with an infant, this ritual is known to be extremely dangerous, carrying a high risk of disease transmission to the unwilling infants involved.
The health department says the procedure is dangerous because the contact with the mouth could transmit diseases such as herpes. Most adults are infected with the herpes simplex virus type 1, and while they may have no symptoms, the virus may be present in their saliva, according to the health department.
To make matters even worse, this is not the first time that infants have contracted herpes as a result of being subjected to this ritual. Many other cases have been documented in the past, some of which even resulted in the deaths of the infants involved.
Since 2000, there have been 13 reports in New York City of infants contracting HSV-1, two of whom died from the virus.
CNN also reports that the New York Department of Health has enacted measures to attempt to alert parents to the risks of the ritual, although it has faced opposition from Jewish groups.
The DOH passed a regulation in September requiring all those who perform the ritual to get parental consent on a form stating that the procedure can lead to health risks. Several Jewish groups and three rabbis filed a lawsuit in federal District Court in Manhattan arguing that “the government cannot compel the transmission of messages that the speaker does not want to express — especially when the speaker is operating in an area of heightened First Amendment protection, such as a religious ritual.”
So, not only are these groups supportive of a procedure that is known to carry serious health risks to infants, but they are attempting to stifle the dissemination of information regarding those risks. This reaction shows an even more atrocious lack of regard for the lives, health, and safety of others than their condoning of the ritual in the first place.
Dr. Thomas A. Farley, commissioner of the city’s health department, claimed the consent requirement was “lawful, appropriate and necessary” in a September press release. “The city’s highest obligation is to protect its children; therefore, it is important that parents know the risks associated with the practice,” he said.
While I applaud Mr. Farley for his support of informed consent, I can’t help but call bullshit on this statement. If the city truly considered the protection of its children to be its highest obligation, then the health department would outlaw these practices altogether. Mr. Farley’s next statement serves to prove this:
“There is no safe way to perform oral suction on any open wound in a newborn.”
The fact that these dangerous practices are allowed to continue, out of tolerance for religious belief, says that the appeasement of religious groups gets a higher priority than the protection of the innocent, unwilling children who fall victim to them. And, to those who might say that outlawing the ritual would violate the freedom of religious practice, I call bullshit a second time. While circumcision may take its roots from religion, it is a medical procedure, and should be treated and regulated as such.
The point to all of this is that when we allow religious tolerance to take precedence over protecting the health and safety of those who cannot protect themselves, it is a massive failing of society. Just as we don’t allow communities to stone women who have premarital sex or children who curse their parents to death, because the bible commands it, neither should we allow a child’s health and life to be put in jeopardy, simply to satisfy the requirements of an ancient religious ritual.