Rules Under Consideration in Two States Regarding STD Transmission to Children

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Rules Under Consideration in Two States Regarding STD Transmission to Children

Martha Kempner

An Indiana grandmother is asking lawmakers to criminalize the transmission of STDs from a child molester to his or her victim, while New York's mayor has declined to comment on whether he’ll support the continued enforcement of regulations to discourage a circumcision ritual that's been known to spread herpes to infants.

Two recent stories highlight efforts to limit the possible transmission of sexually transmitted infections from adults to children, albeit in very different ways. A grandmother in Indiana is asking lawmakers to criminalize the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases from a child molester to his or her victim, while in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has declined to comment on whether he’ll support the continued enforcement regulations designed to discourage a specific circumcision ritual that has been known to spread herpes to infants.

The grandmother, who is being identified only as Shelly, told her local news station that her grandson has suffered almost monthly herpes outbreaks since he was molested by a family friend in 2010 and 2011. The boy was 5 years old at the time of the abuse. His abuser was tried, convicted, and sent to prison for six years, but Shelly thinks that is not enough given the additional suffering that herpes has caused her grandson.

Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection that causes open sores on the mouth or genitals which can be painful. Caused by the viruses herpes simplex 1 and 2, the sores can be transmitted from genitals to genitals, mouth to mouth, or mouth to genitals (or vice versa). The first time a person has an outbreak, they may also have flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands. Once a person is infected with herpes, the sores can reappear at any time. Some people only ever have one outbreak, while others have the frequent appearance of sores, often in the same place on their body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six people in the United States between the ages of 14 and 49 has genital herpes.

Anti-viral medication can decrease the frequency and duration of outbreaks, but Shelly points out that these medications were made for adults. “He has suffered greatly with it,” she said. “They’re blisters, like chicken pox, and they itch like chicken pox.”

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Shelly believes that her grandson’s molester should have received extra punishment as a result. “It must be recognized as a separate crime, because it’s a life-altering incident and it should be recognized as that, not just pushing it together with the whole group of molestation. That’s not right,” she said.

At least one lawmaker agrees. State Sen. John Broden (D-South Bend) told the local television station, “I’m certainly going to introduce some kind of legislation next session to see if this might be a penalty that warrants and enhancement. When you have this sort of resulting effect on the victim it sort of makes the crime one that frankly is worse.”

Meanwhile, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was asked by Jewish leaders whether he would enforce the rules put in place by his predecessor to regulate the practice of “metzitzah b’peh.” Ritual circumcision is common in the Jewish community—known as a bris, this rite of passage occurs when an infant boy is 8 days old and is often performed by a religious figure known as a mohel. Though not common, some ultra-Orthodox communities use “metzitzah b’peh,” which is also known as “snip and suck”—after removing the foreskin, the mohel puts his mouth on the infant’s penis and sucks the blood.

The city’s health department became concerned about the ritual a few years ago after a string of infants were infected with herpes. In fact, since 2000, 13 infants have been infected with herpes as a result of this ritual—two of these babies died from the disease and two others suffered brain damage. In 2012, the department passed controversial regulations in an effort to prevent this type of transmission. Though it did not attempt to forbid the ritual—which would violate the community’s religious freedom—the department passed rules requiring that mohels receive written consent from the parents before undergoing the practice. The consent form explains that the health department advises parents that “direct oral suction should not be performed” because of the herpes risk. At the time the regulations were passed, the health department said it would not actively monitor mohels but would instead only investigate if parents complained. At least two infants have contracted herpes since the regulations were passed.

Despite this, some religious leaders and politicians were outraged by the new rules. In August 2012, about 200 Orthodox rabbis issued a decree that said the rules were based on “lies and misinformation.” According to a translation published by Yeshiva World News, their decree said, “We are decreeing that according to our opinion, it is forbidden according to the Torah to participate in the evil plans of the NYC Health Dept. in any form.” According to the Jewish Times, a state assemblyman called the regulations “a deliberate insult to the intelligence and dignity” of New York’s Orthodox Jews.

Last week, de Blasio, who took office in January of this year, spoke at the annual gala of Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella group. The mayor talked about how important the Orthodox community is to New York City and trumpeted his plan to provide pre-K to all communities. However, he dodged questions on whether his administration would support enforcing the regulations regarding ritual circumcision.