Why Explanations Matter

James Maxwell Koffler*

On August 22, The New York Times had a great overall account of the presence of the Brooklyn Hasidim as a political force. While most of the article was well done, a key omission, however, was an explanation of Councilwoman Christine Quinn's support for New York City’s policy requiring “parents to sign a consent form so they could be alerted to the risks” of the practice of metzitzah b’peh —“oral suctioning of a circumcision wound.” As someone who leans libertarian, especially on issues relating to parental choice, I wanted to know the City’s basis for impeding parental ability to access this ancient religious procedure. As the article states:

"Most prominently, the city has battled with ultra-Orthodox Jewish representatives over the health risks in metzitzah b’peh, a technique for orally suctioning a circumcision wound. Instead of banning the practice outright, health officials instead required parents to sign a consent form so they could be alerted to the risks. But ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders were still infuriated. The matter even became an issue in the mayoral campaign, with Christine C. Quinn defending the city’s policy and her Democratic opponents, including Anthony D. Weiner and John C. Liu, arguing that the Hasidic practice has stood the test of millenniums."

It is startling that The New York Times side-stepped Ms. Quinn’s rationale for supporting this intrusion, not only because the policy infringes on parental rights and religious liberties, but also because I recalled reading a rationale for such a restriction in a previous edition of The New York Times. After searching the periodical’s website, I found the answer to my inquiry in various articles. For example, an article printed on September 13, 2012 entitled “Denouncing City’s Move to Regulate Circumcision” reported that “between 2000 and 2011, 11 babies contracted herpes as a result [of the ritualistic procedure], and 2 of them died.” Aha.

Ordinarily, I err on the side of parental rights (Hey, Toddlers & Tiaras might not be in my kid’s future, but who am I to judge Mama June). In this case, requiring parents to sign a document stating that they know the specific risks posed to the child is actually a better policy than a poll-tested statement “the practice has stood the test of millenniums.” However, by failing to explain the rationale behind the City's policy, the Times provided readers with an incomplete picture of the lively debate surrounding metzitzah b’peh.

Journalists, when you write articles mentioning the “risks” justifying policies which infringe on parental rights and religious liberties, kindly explain the nature of such risks rather than merely glossing over the issue.          

* James Maxwell Koffler is an L.L.M. candidate at New York University School of Law, class of 2014, and is a Staff Editor of the Journal of Law & Liberty.