Nearly every religious tradition, including mine, has some weird beliefs (virgin birth! Jesus risen from the dead!). Nearly every religious tradition has some weird practices. And in a pluralistic society, we should step back and let people exercise their weird beliefs and practices.
Right up until those religious beliefs and practices do physical harm to others. And that’s basically what’s going on with this whole circumcision/herpes thing.
New York City health officials proposed on Tuesday that Orthodox Jewish parents be required to sign a consent waiver before they can take part in a circumcision ritual that is believed to have led to the deaths of at least two babies in the city over the past decade.
The proposal, introduced at a Board of Health meeting, represents an escalation of the city’s efforts to curtail the ancient Jewish procedure of metzitzah b’peh, in which an adult male, usually the circumciser, places his mouth directly on the wound created by the removal of the infant’s foreskin to suck away the blood.
Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report based on city information that said that from 2000 to 2011, 11 newborn babies in New York contracted the herpes simplex virus after the ritual. Ten of those babies were hospitalized; two suffered brain damage, and two died.
Based on those findings, the city’s health department issued a statement last week strongly urging that direct oral-genital suction not be performed during circumcision. It also announced that a number of hospitals had agreed to distribute a pamphlet to parents considering at-home circumcision, warning them of the risks.
Religious traditions are important in maintaining identity and community (and this tradition is not mainstream at all). But at the point where a religious tradition calls for a grown man putting his mouth on a baby’s penis — something that in any other context would be a pretty serious crime — I think it’s fair for the state to step in and put a stop to it. Especially when it’s giving babies brain damage and sometimes killing them, but even if it wasn’t. Babies are actually people, and while it’s fair to generally entrust parents to make decisions for them — even if the parents make decisions many of us don’t agree with — the right of parents to dictate what happens to their child should end right around the point where a grown man is putting his mouth on the baby’s genitals.