A circumcision ritual practiced by some Orthodox Jews has alarmed city health officials, who say it may have led to three cases of herpes -- one of them fatal -- in infants. But after months of meetings with Orthodox leaders, city officials have been unable to persuade them to abandon the practice.
The city's intervention has angered many Orthodox leaders, and the issue has left the city struggling to balance its mandate to protect public health with the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. . . .
The practice is known as oral suction, or in Hebrew, metzitzah b'peh: after removing the foreskin of the penis, the practitioner, or mohel, sucks the blood from the wound to clean it.
It became a health issue after a boy in Staten Island and twins in Brooklyn, circumcised by the same mohel in 2003 and 2004, contracted Type-1 herpes. Most adults carry the disease, which causes the common cold sore, but it can be life-threatening for infants. One of the twins died. . . .
The health department, after the meeting, reiterated that it did not intend to ban or regulate oral suction. But Dr. Frieden has said that the city is taking this approach partly because any broad rule would be virtually unenforceable. Circumcision generally takes place in private homes. . . .
If the practice is indeed potentially life-threatening, it seems to me it should indeed be banned. Despite what I at first thought, it seems that "the most traditionalist groups, including many Hasidic sects in New York, consider oral suction integral to God's covenant with the Jews requiring circumcision," and thus religiously obligated. The prohibition therefore substantially burdens their religious beliefs (whether or not we think these beliefs are sensible).
But, first, it's not clear whether New York law generally provides for religious exemptions from generally applicable laws (see In re Miller, 252 A.D.2d 156 (App. 1998)). And, second, even if it did provide for such exemptions, no exemptions would have to be granted if enforcing the law is the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest -- and here it surely is.
Moreover, I would hope that the ban would indeed be enforceable: First, I would think that some mohels would feel some obligation to follow the law (though of course I'd hope that they wouldn't jeopardize children's lives, once they know about the risk). Second, Jewish circumcisions are generally events at which many people, both family and friends, observe. If child gets sick and there's a question about whether the mohel violated the law, I would think that at least some of the witnesses to the ceremony would come forward and be willing to testify in court.
And it seems to me that the ban is perfectly proper, again if the evidence does suggest that there is a material risk here: While people may often risk their lives for the sake of their religions, and should sometimes be allowed to do so, I don't think people should be free to risk their children's lives this way. I realize the risk here isn't vast, but even small risks may be substantial enough to justify a restriction.
According to the Times,
"The Orthodox Jewish community will continue the practice that has been practiced for over 5,000 years," said Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after the meeting with the mayor. "We do not change. And we will not change."
Well, it seems to me that the American community should continue the practice of protecting children from being killed by adults. That may be a younger rule, but it's the right rule, and it should not change. Your views of your obligation to God do not give you the legal right to cause the deaths of others.
Read the rest of the story, which has lots of other important details.
Related Posts (on one page):
- Some More Thoughts on Deadly Risks to Which Parents Expose Their Child:
- "Bloodsucking Circumcision,"