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Fertility in the orthodox Jewish community

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28) was the first commandment given to Adam after he was created. Similarly “He did not create the world to be desolate but rather inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18) is a further basis for the importance of fertility for orthodox Jews. Rachel, the matriarch, declared to Jacob, “Give me children, otherwise I am dead”. Indeed, this may account for the very liberal laws regarding infertility treatment in Israel in addition to demographic considerations.

Unlike secular Jews, orthodox Jews have some limitations regarding reproduction. Orthodox women are not allowed to have sexual contact with their husbands during menstruation and for 7 days after the bleeding stops, after which they take the ritual bath and become ‘clean’ again. For the majority of women, this strictly kept law is not a problem but for those with a short cycle in whom ovulation occurs before the ritual bath, pregnancy is obviously out of the question. The only way round this situation is to delay ovulation which has been done using estrogens, clomifene and even GnRH agonists. The irony is that this law was designed to encourage fertility and ‘save’ the sperm until the fertile window.

Sperm sampling is a problem for the orthodox community as most rabbis will not condone the ‘spilling of seed in vain’. More lenient rabbis judge that this sperm is not ‘wasted’ but is for the purposes of promoting fertility. Various devices are used to circumvent the problem including collecting semen from the vagina after intercourse or using a condom with a small hole for semen collection. Artificial insemination with donor sperm is generally frowned upon. Although not regarded as adultery, it is generally discouraged.

Egg donation is generally rejected outright although it is condoned by some if the husband consents. It is the question of who is the mother according to Jewish law which has created a fascinating philosophical discussion, as yet unanswered.

Interpretation of biblical writings and Jewish law into 21st century reproductive technology is attempting to keep up with the pace of progress.

Professor Roy Homburg

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