NEW YORK – People who perform an ultra-Orthodox Jewish circumcision suction ritual will no longer have to get parents to sign acknowledgements of potential health risks, the city Board of Health decided Wednesday, reversing a policy that pitted health officials against religious leaders over a practice that dates to biblical times.
The vote formalized a tentative policy shift Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration made in February. The city now distributes information about what officials see as possible risks of oral suction circumcision, but signed consent forms are no longer required.
"The Board of Health, from the start, aimed to ensure that parents had information so that they could make informed decisions," Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said Wednesday, adding that the consent requirement "hadn't been that effective."
The practice is performed each year on an estimated 3,000 New York City babies, a fraction of the city's Jewish population. The ritual, formally called metzitzah b'peh in Hebrew, entails a rabbi or another circumciser sucking blood from an infant's circumcision wounds.
City health officials believe the practice was linked to at least 17 cases of infant herpes since 2000, though DNA testing to pinpoint the source of the infection was not done in all cases. Two babies died, and two others suffered brain damage.
In 2012, the health board passed a requirement for signed consent from infants' parents or guardians, including acknowledgement that they understood that health officials recommended against the practice.
Some rabbis objected, seeing the requirement as an imposition on religious rights, and they urged their faithful not to comply. Those who performed the ceremony questioned any link between the practice and spreading herpes, saying they deployed herpes testing, hand-scrubbing and mouthwash to ensure it didn't.
Rabbi Romi Cohn of Brooklyn, who says he has safely performed about 35,000 such rituals, commended the city's change of direction.
"Oral circumcision is part of our tradition," he said by phone after Wednesday's vote. "I think New York will be blessed for doing the right thing."
The matter put the health board in a difficult position, members noted.
"It is our core responsibility to protect the health of New Yorkers," member Dr. Deepthiman K. Gowda said. "At the same time, we have to institute educational policy that actually works. ... The rollout of our previous policy actually eroded the relationship we wanted."
But some weren't convinced the problems merited ending the requirement.
"A very significant public health concern is served," said Dr. Lynne Richardson, who abstained from the vote.
The city has distributed 20,000 printed copies and 22,000 email copies of a new informational brochure in English and Yiddish, Bassett said.
Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik contributed to this report.