According to a report by The Jewish Week, Agudath Israel of America is prepared to sue the City of New York if the city’s Department of Health votes to require parents of a newborn to sign a document stating they give informed consent to a mohel to perform the controversial metitzah b’peh procedure during the baby’s circumcision. The vote is scheduled to take place this Thursday.
The information came to light in an e-mail sent by Agudath Israel’s general counsel, Mordechai Biser, who wrote that his organization is searching for a New York-based law firm willing to work either pro-bono or on “a reduced rate basis” to bring “a lawsuit against the City of New York to prevent the City from issuing a regulation that would require written parental consent for an aspect of bris milah (‘metzitzah b’peh’).”
As Biser’s e-mail outlines, the basis for the lawsuit is “that this regulation is unconstitutional on the grounds that it interferes with both freedom of religion and speech (the latter, because it requires the mohel to distribute certain information to parents). We are concerned that if this regulation goes into effect, the next step will be further regulation of bris milah.”
The informed consent document would present information about the oral suction procedure’s alleged health risks, particularly a herpes virus infection that could cause brain damage or death.
This past week, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, requested in a letter to Mayor Bloomberg that he cancel Thursday’s vote and hold a meeting with Agudah officials for a “serious substantive dialogue regarding the sensitive issues at hand.” But the mayor has apparently ignored the request, in line with a statement from his spokeswoman, Samantha Levine, who told The Jewish Week that “There is no safe way to perform oral suction on any open wound in a newborn…leading medical authorities have also identified these serious risks.” Levine further stated, “Ultimately, the City’s highest obligation is to protect its children, therefore it is important that parents know the risks associated with the practice.”
In his own letter to Bloomberg refuting the one from Agudath Israel, Dr. Jonathan Zenilman, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Maryland, professor of medicine and past president of American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association, claims that the Orthodox organization is “doing a terrible disservice to the Jewish Community and the public at large by framing the legitimate health related arguments against metzizah b’peh (MBP) as attempts to impede religious freedom and brith milah (circumcision) practice.”
Zenilman further states that Agudah’s letter to the mayor embodies “a troubling misunderstanding of infectious diseases issues and transmission, as well as standard health care practices as they are performed in the 21st century,” pointing out that “Since the mid 1980s, the standard of care for all medical interactions involving any blood or secretions has required the use of gloves and other barrier precautions. When appropriate infection prevention techniques are not followed, infection rates, especially post surgical infections, are higher.”
Additionally, Zenilman’s letter notes that “The clinical and epidemiological data are incontrovertible” and “In the infectious diseases community, there is no doubt that MBP carries risk.”
Separately, the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America came out this week in opposition to the proposed informed consent law, even though it is not a proponent of metzitzah b’peh. The RCA said that while it accepts the ruling of those Torah leaders who sanction the use of a sterile tube as halachically equivalent to direct oral suction, it still “respects the convictions and sensitivities of those in the Orthodox Jewish community who disagree with this ruling and joins in their deep concern about government regulation of religious practices.”