Religious communal practices bringing actual or potential harm to children, sacred text-based or no, narrowly or widely performed, must have no legal support, must be condemned and uprooted by civil authority. Our courts do not condone parents of seriously ill children praying-away known communicable/lethal disease in lieu of proper medical intervention. Nor should religion or cultural tradition confer legal cover for any medically unsupportable act done to a child. We agree that law will not support parents withholding a child from needed cancer treatment in favor of ‘giving it over to Jesus’. We do not allow our law to medievalize girls and women; we do not tolerate female genital mutilation.
Nor should law provide cover for ultra-Orthodox Jews who have never psychically emigrated from the Shtetl and yet reside, work, pay taxes, and bloc-vote, in Brooklyn.
After decades of wrangling, New York City has decided not to go after the ultra-Orthodox practice called metzitzah b’peh, whereby the circumciser, with his mouth, draws blood from a newly, ritually-cut, penis. Several infant deaths and dozens of herpes cases have been linked to the practice since 2000, the ritual definitively associated with increased and lethal risk in infants for herpes simplex virus.
New York City has never called for the banning of the practice — a practice, not an injunction of religious law — and that ought not matter — and the city has told ultra-Orthodox sects that it will allow the religious communal leadership to determine if and when to advise civil authority and only after a baby falls ill. New York will even stop requiring parents to sign waivers indicating that they understand they’re putting infants at serious risk.
We have hygiene standards for all manner of professionals, from hospital and restaurant workers to the artists who ink ankles and arms. That religion, that any religion or sect, that any religious voting bloc can demand and gain cover for clear-as-a-bell unsafe practices with children is wholly unacceptable.
The irony, of course, is that male circumcision itself has evidenced no physical or emotionally harm. Circumcision has been shown to be, whether performed as religious rite or as neo-natal hospital routine, in numerous ways healthful. The fears in ultra-Orthodox religious communities that stanching metzitzah b’peh will lead to renewed legal attacks on circumcision do not justify civil law cover for what amounts to attacks on babies. Metzitzah b’peh should be, in America, criminalised.
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