Wednesday, February 25, 2015
The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox rabbis, is set to ease New York City's regulations on a controversial circumcision ritual that has been linked to herpes infections in infants.
The city is seeking to waive a rule that requires parents to sign a consent form before the ritual, which involves the circumciser using his mouth to suck blood away from the incision on a boy's penis. The ritual is common among some branches of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
Administration officials on Tuesday announced a new policy that they described as a compromise between reducing health risks for infants and protecting the religious freedoms of those who cherish the ritual, known as metzitzah b'peh, or oral suction.
The policy, which must be approved by the city's Board of Health, involves a series of medical tests when a baby is found to have herpes. A circumciser who is proved through a DNA match to have the same herpes strain as the baby's would be banned for life from the practice.
Health organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, have long warned that the ritual significantly raises the risk of herpes infection among infants; since 2000, the city's health department has linked it to more than a dozen cases of infection, including two deaths.
But the consent rule, introduced under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, an independent, prompted fierce objections from Orthodox leaders, who called it an infringement on their religious rights. The city also encountered problems with enforcement: The consent forms were rarely used, and the number of herpes infections linked to the practice jumped last year.
Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, views ultra-Orthodox New Yorkers as a key political constituency, and he pledged to rescind the consent rule on the first day of his administration. His aides have spent months conferring with Orthodox leaders on a compromise.
Still, the mayor's team did not exactly trumpet the new circumcision policy on Tuesday.
In an unusual rollout, aides to Mr. de Blasio announced the policy in the early evening, typically a time when City Hall releases information that could be construed as sensitive.
The administration did not allow city health officials to speak on the record during a briefing about the new policy. Instead, reporters were asked to attribute quotations to "Official 1" and "Official 2."
Those health officials, speaking on Tuesday, said the new approach would ensure more cooperation from the ultra-Orthodox community, and they argued that banning or further restricting the practice would result only in driving it "underground," potentially generating more risk.
The health officials said they were still finalizing some elements. For instance, under the current proposal, a circumciser, known as a mohel, who is found to have herpes would still be allowed to perform the ritual, if a DNA test does not match his virus with the strain present in the infant. It can sometimes require multiple DNA tests to establish a match.
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The administration will also ask hospitals and doctors in the community to distribute information about the risks associated with the ritual.
A similar policy, recently enacted in Rockland County, has resulted in at least one circumciser recusing himself after testing positive for herpes. No cases of herpes transmission through oral suction have yet been proved there.
Rabbi David Zweibel, leader of an ultra-Orthodox group that sued the city over the consent rule, praised its repeal. "It is to Mayor de Blasio's eternal credit that he recognized how profoundly offensive the regulation was to our community," he said.
Mr. de Blasio, for his part, has appeared eager of late to show respect to the ultra-Orthodox community.
On Monday, the mayor, along with two aides, attended a wedding in New Square, N.Y., a largely Hasidic village in Rockland County. He received a blessing from the town's grand rabbi before making the 45-minute drive back to Gracie Mansion.
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