Kahn, S., Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel

Susan Martha Kahn, Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel (Durham, NC, Duke University Press: 2000) pp. 227, ppbk. $17.95. *

I couldn’t put this book down — and it is not fiction; it is a study of artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and other such issues in contemporary Israel. Susan Kahn interviewed women, rabbis, social workers, and medical personnel, was a participant observer in support groups, and worked in a Jerusalem fertility clinic. Her report is clear, humane, and open to issues of halakha without being technical. She easily alternates quotations from interviews and narration of her own experience, with halakhic and anthropological analysis.

“If you’re not a mother, you don’t exist in Israeli society,” one unmarried woman said. Another put it, “The time arrived, but the father didn’t.” Such women decide to have children outside of marriage and Israeli society supports this decision. This “pronatalist” attitude has led to government decisions that support the right of every woman to have a child and enforce this by making the health insurance system pay for artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and other such procedures. In addition, a child born out of wedlock is halakhically and socially accepted: “There is no word for an illegitimate child in Hebrew. Once the child is born, the society accepts him” (17).

Still, there are problems: Which women are eligible? only age 30-50. What are the prerequisites for treatment? The interview covers physical and mental history, financial resources, emotional stability, job and army status, realistic appraisal of the difficulties, support systems before and after birth, motivation, self-image, etc. (28). How, then, does one choose a sperm donor? What does one tell the child when it realizes that there is no father in the home? And so on.

For the halakhic community, the availability of these fertility techniques increases the possibilities of reproduction. That is an important advance, if insemination is from the husband. But, if the woman is married and her husband is infertile, does sperm donation constitute an act of adultery, or does adultery requires an actual sex act?

Equally important: If the sperm donor is anonymous, there is a slight possibility of two children being fathered by the same sperm. If these children marry, that is incest. How does one avoid this? Should one keep a confidential donor directory? If one does, that invades privacy; if one does not, how would one avoid potential marriage of biological siblings?

One way to avoid both the problems of adultery and of potential incest ( mamzer status) is to use non-Jewish sperm because, halakhically, non Jewish males are not fathers. Sometimes German non-Jewish donors are used to create orthodox Jewish babies! (109)

In cases of surrogacy, who is the mother: the egg donor or the womb mother? What if one or the other is not Jewish? Halakha follows the womb, but that denies the genetic reality of egg donation. Also, halakhically, the mother is the one in whose womb the child grew but, according to most western law, the contracting woman is the mother. So, whose nationality is followed? From whom does the child inherit? Etc.

Not all is law, ethics, and logic. Israeli reproductive assistance is a family matter. There is no discrete waiting room and no hushed office (25). Personnel get involved. As one nurse put it: “As soon as I saw you, I knew the donor for you. It’s too bad you can’t meet him; you’re very suited to one another” (33). Workers wish the mothers good luck, ask to be invited to the brit, and put up fotos of “their” babies (26). As one doctor put it, “We’re making a mother” (127). PUĀ“AH is an ultraorthodox group that aids women very supportively (89).

And, of course, there is politics. Fearing that the orthodox rabbinate will be pushed by its extremist elements into political action to ban all this, records are not kept and some issues are left legally unresolved.

Kahn after a wonderful description of her work in a Jerusalem fertility clinic (114ff.), summarizes the issues in the last chapter, pointing out that the biological and social definitions of kinship are not the same. Furthermore, within the social definition, the halakhic and the state understandings are not the same and, to make things more complicated, many non-religious Israelis accept the halakhic conceptualities even when those conflict with their liberated western views. There is, thus, a certain “cutting and pasting of kinship categories” (169).

A fascinating book — for everyone.

[*] Appeared in the Jewish Spectator (Summer 2001) book review: pp. 5-6.

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