Six babies have developed herpes following circumcisions since Bill de Blasio became mayor, and his administration is now changing course on the issue in an attempt to stop mohels who have infected babies with herpes from performing the metzitzah b’peh ritual.
Health Commissioner Mary Bassett said yesterday that two of the six mohels who infected the babies have been identified and ordered to stop performing the ritual. Yet the administration won't release the names of the mohels: "We have defended the department's decision in court not to make these names available. People are entitled to their privacy," she said. As a result, the City will rely on parents to ask their mohel if they have been banned by the health commissioner.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in NYC has been criticized for failed attempts to police itself in the past, so it's an open question whether what amounts to the honor system will make a difference this time. But at least de Blasio is acknowledging the current policy is a failure: "We tried a new policy. It didn’t work either — which I’m very unhappy about,” de Blasio said at a press conference in Queens yesterday. "I don’t think those community leaders did all they could have done. So now we’re going in a different direction."
"We’re going to do a much more intensive effort to educate parents, particular mothers, as to the dangers of this practice," he continued. "And we’re going to say to them, it’s important to ask the mohel—if you choose to engage in this practice, that’s your right, and we respect religious freedom—but ask the mohel if they are infected with herpes. And if they are, you should find a different mohel. It’s as simple as that."
The "metzitzah b'peh" ritual is the circumcision practice in which a mohel sucks the blood from a freshly snipped foreskin of a baby boy. Outside of the ultra-Orthodox community, the ritual is shunned by Jews, and is considered by many to be an ancient tradition based on "a long-discredited medical theory from the Iron Age before the dawn of the Common Era."
Under the Bloomberg administration, the Board of Health ruled that "parents need to be aware of the opinion of experts," and unanimously passed circumcision consent forms that required Orthodox Jewish parents to sign a waiver before their infant could undergo the procedure. The City was immediately sued by ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups who claimed their First Amendment rights were violated.
When he was first running for office, de Blasio criticized the Bloomberg administration for not reaching out to the community, but stopped short of promising to dispose of the consent forms. He later used the consent forms as a way to win over ultra-Orthodox Jewish voters and further separate himself from Bloomberg, saying, "I would start over and change the policy to find a way to protect all of our children but also respect religious tradition."
As Failed Messiah put it at the time, "Bill De Blasio Promises Satmar That In Exchange For Votes, He Will Repeal Informed Consent For Dangerous Haredi Circumcision Practice." The ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions generally vote in blocs—Failed Messiah notes that this Aharonite Satmar faction alone is worth 10,000+ votes. On election night in 2013, one ultra-Orthodox Jewish voter in South Williamsburg bluntly told us, "I don't know the meaning of democracy, I just vote what they tell me to do, because maybe they've made deals with the politicians."
De Blasio made good on that promise in 2015, with the Board of Health nixing the consent forms. The city instead directed health officials to distribute a brochure to ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents titled, "Make a safe bris for your baby."
Over 20 babies in NYC have been infected with herpes since 2000 because of the ritual, and at least two have died because of it. Israeli doctors studying the herpes infection also believe it may be the cause of the noticeably higher number of learning disabled children in Hasidic communities.