Balancing Religious Liberties with Child Safety: Akiva Shapiro
Friday, June 6, 2014

As a constitutional lawyer and an Orthodox Jew, Akiva Shapiro is more accustomed to suing the government on religious liberties grounds than defending government regulation. But two years ago Shapiro entered the brawl surrounding metzitzah b’peh (MbP), a controversial practice in which a mohel performs direct oral suction during a bris. He joined the fray after the city passed a regulation requiring that parents be informed of the potential risks of this practice to infants, and then ultra-Orthodox groups, as well as some individual mohelim, filed a federal lawsuit in protest. (The city took action after confirming 11 cases of herpes simplex virus acquired by infants from MbP in recent years, resulting in two infant deaths and two cases of permanent brain damage).

“It’s a parental rights case,” said Shapiro, a married father of four who has written multiple friend-of-the-court briefs and represented numerous medical organizations pro bono in defense of the city. “This law makes it so the parents are the ones making decisions about their kids, not somebody else.”

With Shapiro’s help, the city won its case in federal district court in January 2013; in December, ultra-Orthodox organizations appealed. Again, Shapiro donated his time to defend the opinions of infectious disease specialists and others in the medical community. Both sides are awaiting the appellate court’s decision.

“It is important for somebody within the Orthodox community to be involved and say, ‘This is not an Orthodox-versus-the-rest-of-the-world thing,’” said Shapiro on a recent afternoon at his office at law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Shapiro stresses the need for balance, in general, between concern for public health and the right to religious practice. “Our religious liberties are foundational,” he says. “But they don’t extend to putting life in jeopardy.”

Family man: To unwind, Shapiro likes to watch “Parenthood” with his wife after their kids have gone to sleep. No stranger to controversy, he is also working pro bono on other high-profile cases, including Zivotofsky v. Kerry, in which he is representing members of Congress who maintain that Jerusalem-born Americans have the right to have ‘Israel’ listed on their passports as birthplace. That case will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in the fall.


This is such a highly/charged emotional issue. I admire this man's courage and honesty. There is no higher obligation re a newborn than assuring his life and health. In order to do so the state, on behalf of the child's welfare must at least provide his parents with the ability to make a choice.

Anonymous...Nobody is attempting to "remove [your] religious freedom and long standing menorah" as you stated. The argument which was won in court, is that the parents have the right to be informed that there is a potential health risk and they have to sign off that they have been informed of this risk. Then if they sign off, they are able to exercise their "religious freedom and long standing menorah". Why are you and others so threatened by people being treated like the adults that they are and allowing them to make an informed decision. Nobody is encroaching on anybody's religious freedom and the "slippery slope" dectum really doesn't cut it here. Better to avoid unnecessary risk to the newborn's health and life by using a straw instead of a potentially infected mouth of the mohel.

Anon, please read the article properly before making accusations.
Shapiro is not supporting any restriction on MbP, so this doesn't affect *anyone's* religious freedom.
He is fighting to ensure that parents are given all the information needed in order to make an informed decision on whether to use MbP.

It's about protecting freedom here.

Please get your facts straight. No one's freedoms are getting "removed." All that is happening is that parents are being notified that the procedure is being done, therefore increasing freedom of choice. And for your information, MbP DOES occur sometimes without the parents knowing it's happening which means that sometimes is IS being done against someone's wishes.

You are very "frum" about certain issues, yet you seem to not care about practicing "judge all men favorably" since you are publicly accusing this observant man of "having abandoned his mesorah."

You are the one who's shameful!

What an embarrassment. The "Jewish" Weak lauding an individual for his Jewish work which was to remove religious freedom and long standing mesorah. Even if it is not your mesorah, or more likely you have abandoned Mesorah, it is still long standing.

Nobody was doing MbP against anyone's wishes. To portray the issue as such is ridiculous, or rather a complete and utter fabrication.

How shameful, and yet you are proud???

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