The traditional “when a man and woman love each other very much…” method of baby-making just doesn’t work for everyone. Many couples struggle with infertility. Single women and same-sex couples also seek ways to have children and for them, conception is much more complicated than just well-timed meeting of egg and sperm. Amazingly, modern fertility technology offers options and hope for these potential parents.
Though Judaism takes seriously the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” Jewish legal authorities have raised some concerns about how fertility technology is used. Like any area of Jewish law, this one is fraught with disagreement and debate.
While some of the following may seem farfetched or strange, it should be viewed in the context of dispassionate legal deliberations. Also, keep in mind that most Reform and Conservative Rabbis would not object to these various fertility treatments.
Here’s a brief overview of the Jewish legal discussion surrounding the three main areas of fertility technology: artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy.
Because it’s generally the least invasive, the least dangerous, and the least costly technique available, artificial insemination is still often the first one used today when a couple cannot conceive. Artificial insemination is also often the method of choice for helping unpartnered women–or women not partnered to men–to conceive.
There are three traditional prohibitions that are mentioned by Jewish legal authorities who have sorted through the issue of artificial insemination.
Artificially inseminating a married woman with donor sperm might be considered adultery, according to some Jewish legal authorities. Others reject this notion, arguing that there can be no adultery without intercourse.
While unlikely, it’s possible that when using anonymous donor sperm, the offspring conceived might end up marrying his or her sibling (who he or she does not know), committing unintentional incest. Because of the remoteness of this possibility, the Conservative and Reform movements both reject this concern. Orthodox authorities, however, allow artificial insemination with anonymous donor sperm only in extenuating circumstances.
Even when a woman is artificially inseminated with her own husband’s sperm–therefore avoiding the two concerns raised above–some Orthodox authorities believe that masturbation in order to provide sperm for the procedure violates the prohibition of “wasting seed.” Other Orthodox rabbis have no problem with masturbation in this context. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a prominent Conservative rabbi and authority on medical ethics writes: “Producing semen for the specific purpose of procreating cannot plausibly be called wasting it.”
In Vitro Fertilization
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a fertility treatment in which eggs extracted from a woman are fertilized outside of her body and then implanted in her uterus. Among Jewish legal thinkers IVF raises a couple of related issues:
• Disposal of Extra Eggs
Usually, several eggs are taken for fertilization, and the “best” embryos are chosen for implantation. But what to do with the unused zygotes (fertilized eggs)? Is discarding them akin to abortion (which is only permitted under certain circumstances according to traditional Jewish law)? In the end, most Jewish authorities agree that an egg fertilized outside of a womb does not have any human status and can be discarded.
• Selective Abortion
Doctors often implant several zygotes to increase the chances of one of them attaching to the uterine wall and developing. But if all or even many of them attach, selective abortion of some of the embryos is often recommended–to protect both the mother and the fetuses. While Judaism permits abortion when a woman’s life is in danger, actively pursuing a situation in which abortion might well be necessary is potentially problematic. Rabbi Elliot Dorff has suggested limiting implantation to two or three zygotes.
Jewish authorities who debate surrogacy focus on the general moral questions the procedure raises: Is it a commodification of a woman’s body and the reproductive process? Does it potentially accentuate the social and economic differences between what is often a relatively rich couple and a relatively poor surrogate mother? Or is it a remarkable technology that enables infertile couples to have children with the gametes of at least one–and sometimes both–partners?
There is nothing specifically “Jewish” about these questions, though Jews facing the decision about whether to pursue surrogacy might find it worthwhile to explore how Jewish authorities have weighed into this debate.
While it might come as a surprise, traditional Jewish law suggests that when the sperm and egg of two Jewish people are implanted in a non-Jewish surrogate mother, the child born is not automatically Jewish. According to most Orthodox and Conservative rabbis, Jewish status is determined by the mother who carries the child to term–not by the child’s genetic material. These rabbis would require conversion for any child born to a non-Jewish surrogate.