City health officials are pushing back this week after an article in the religious publication Yated Ne’eman seemed to cast doubt that an infant recently contracted a fatal herpes virus from metzitzah b’peh, the controversial bris technique of oral suction.
The piece, published last week, contains “a number of inaccurate statements and omissions,” according to a spokesperson from the city’s Health Department.
The article, in which the author, Debbie Maimon, claims she interviewed the Borough Park mother of the deceased baby, calls the dangers of metzitzah b’peh “imaginary” and relies heavily on statements from the apparently lone defender of the safety of the practice within the mainstream medical community, Dr. Daniel Berman.
According to the article, the baby — who died in September at approximately 2 weeks of age — did not contract the fatal herpes virus through direct oral suction as the medical examiner had found, but by sharing a pacifier with his 2-year-old brother, “who had a small sore on his lip.” The mother told the newspaper, “It was only after talking to Dr. Berman that I realized how fatal this was.”
However, according to the Health Department, the infant who died had herpes sores on his genitals, but not in his mouth.
The family of the infant has refused to reveal the name of the mohel to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, which is investigating the death.
Reached in his office by The Jewish Week, Berman declined to comment on the article or his views on the safety of metzitzah b’peh.
The Yated story comes in the wake of a CDC report released last month that described substantial scientific evidence linking direct oral suction to neonatal herpes and the introduction of a proposal by the city health department to require informed consent from the parents of any infant undergoing the procedure.
While haredi leaders have not commented publicly on the proposed rule, the article in the Yated — a paper whose views are said to reflect the positions and policies of the haredi umbrella group Agudath Israel — argues that its passage “would be the first time in U.S. history that the government interfered with any aspect of bris milah — a dangerous precedent that challenges the First Amendment right to freedom or religion.”
These predictions are not new and were in fact expressed by haredi leaders and community members in 2005 when the city first attempted to educate parents to the dangers of direct oral suction .
“After the breach in the wall,” the article’s author asks, “who knows how far detractors will go?”
Alex Luchenister, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has told The Jewish Week that the government is well within its rights to regulate “a particular practice for health and safety reasons even when there are some people that engage in that practice for religious reasons.
“Indeed,” Luchenister continued, “the government is well within its rights to [regulate] a practice that only occurs for religious reasons if the government has a compelling interest — such as protecting public health — for doing so.”