When Circumcision Goes Wrong

Creative Commons License photo credit: Or Hiltch

People have practiced male circumcision for literally thousands of years. While it’s a commonplace practice, it’s certainly not universal. Most health care providers recognize the value in circumcision, citing studies that show a reduced risk of penile cancer and STDs. There has even been recent research that links circumcision with a reduced risk of prostate cancer.

Still, sometimes circumcision can go wrong; very wrong.

Take, for example, the situation of a baby circumcised in New York. The baby boy died last October as a result of acquiring Type 1 herpes during his circumcision.

A rare practice

Now, it’s important to understand first, that this wasn’t a typical hospital circumcision. This was the result of a “ritual circumcision with oral suction.” This is a specific ritual done among ultra-Orthodox (and some Orthodox) Jewish communities.

In this ritual, the rabbi “seals” the circumcision wound by placing his mouth on the penis, suctioning the blood from the wound.

The practice is controversial among the Jewish community, and is only practiced very rarely today. Once it became clear that the ritual could lead to the contraction of disease, it was often abandoned. Some who still practice the technique actually use a glass tube so that there’s no direct contact with the wound.

Safety of normal circumcision practices

In the vast majority of circumcisions, a sterile environment is created, and local anesthetic is used to address the issues of pain. Like any other surgical procedure, steps are taken to reduce or eliminate the risk of infections. Statistically speaking, less than one tenth percent of circumcisions result in infections of any sort.

The herpes infection is particularly rare, and would require the kind of contact that only happens during that particular ritual.

The courts in New York have been trying to decide how to handle the case, and whether the rabbi and the parents ought to be held liable in the baby’s death.

So, what do you think? When it comes to this kind of specialized practice, is it something that should be allowed? Or does the health of an infant take precedence over the religious rituals of the parents?


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