Mayor Bill de Blasio today announced a new city policy on the ultra-Orthodox Jewish practice of metzitzah b’peh—in which a rabbi sucks the blood from a baby boy’s circumcised penis, a ritual the Bloomberg administration regulated because it can potentially transmit the herpes virus to the infant.
Mr. de Blasio said he reached the new arrangement after long negotiations with rabbinical leaders. Under the new policy, the city will engage local health care providers to educate the religious Jewish community about the risk of a cold sore, caused by the herpes simplex one virus, causing a herpes infection of the child’s genitals.
In return, Jewish leaders committed to helping the city identify the rabbi who performed the metzitzah b’peh on any baby diagnosed with HSV1, and permanently remove him as a “mohel”—one religiously certified to circumcise—if genetic testing proves he is responsible for the infection.
Mr. de Blasio had temporarily retained former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2013 requirement that parents sign a release form warning of the risks associated with metzitzah b’peh, a policy that resulted in ultra-Orthodox Jews suing the previous administration and the Board of Health on First Amendment grounds. The de Blasio adminstration said the new agreement will repeal the old rules and settle the lawsuit.
“While the de Blasio Administration continues to believe that MBP carries with it health risks, given the sacred nature of this ritual to the community, the administration is pursuing a policy centered around education of health risks by the health care community and respect for traditional practices by the religious community,” Mr. de Blasio’s office said in a statement. “Increasing trust and communication between the City and this community is critical to achieve the Administration’s ultimate goal of ensuring the health and safety of every child, and this new policy seeks to establish a relationship based on engagement and mutual respect.”
De Blasio administration officials revealed that the city had received just one signed consent form under the old policy, and argued the rite’s importance to the community made it impossible to eliminate entirely. They confessed even the new policy would function largely on the honor system within the tight-knit community.
The list of the mohels permanently removed from the practice will be available only to the city Department of Health, and the plaintiffs in the suit. Infected mohels who continue to perform metitzeh b’peh will be subject to financial penalties.
Jewish religious leaders greeted the deal with joy.
“I’m thankful to Mayor de Blasio and his entire administration, specifically Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the Mayor’s senior aide Avi Fink and the Department of Health, for doing what it is right, eliminating this consent form, which was intrusive and violated our freedom of religion and speech,” said prominent Brooklyn Rabbi David Niederman, whose Central Rabbinical Congress pressed the suit. “It’s a victory for religious freedom and a victory for public policy.”
It is unclear how many children have died as a result of HSV1 infection resulting from metitzeh b’peh.
Updated to include further comment from the de Blasio administration and from Mr. Niederman