New York City’s Compromise on Dangerous Circumcision Practice Leaves Infants at Risk

I would guess that most Americans, even Jewish Americans, had never heard of metzitzah b’peh until the recent controversy between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the New York City Department of Health. This phrase, translatable as suction by mouth, refers to a custom performed after a circumcision in which a mohel (ritual circumciser) orally sucks the blood away from the baby boy’s penis. Metzitzah b’peh became part of circumcisions in the 2nd century, when it was deemed the best method of satisfying the requirement to hygienically remove the blood shed during the procedure. Most Jews, even observant modern Orthodox Jews, have discarded the practice, which has been linked to a dozen cases of herpes infection and two deaths of infant boys in New York since 2002.

For years now ultra-Orthodox Jews, the mayor of New York, and the New York Department of Health have been trying to balance the demands of religious belief with the protection of vulnerable infants. Mayor Bill de Blasio has come up recently with a new “compromise” – if a baby contracts herpes or another infection that can be attributed, using a DNA test, to a particular mohel, then that mohel would be barred from performing metzitzah b’peh in the future. This resolution seems like closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.

In an effort to educate parents about the possible harm that metzitzah b’peh posed to their babies, back in 2012 New York’s Department of Health required mohels to describe the procedure, outline its advantages and disadvantages, and receive permission from the parents to proceed.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.