If a Jewish woman becomes pregnant using eggs donated from a non-Jewish woman, is the child considered Jewish or not Jewish? Who is the "real" mother, in terms of matrilineal descent - the woman who donated the genetic material or the woman who carried and delivered the baby? What about the possibility that was raised recently of combing the DNA of two women to avoid genetic diseases - how would that be seen? What does Judaism have to say about this?
Thanks so much for your email. There are many complicated issues at play here. First, whether there can really only be two parents? Also, is the womb a determining factor of Jewish status? Lastly, what roles does genetics play in the decision to parent? None of these questions are easy to answer and they are intensely personal decisions. I want to be clear that my belief is that each situation is unique, and each family is a bit different. I can offer general ideas, but that specifics would need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
In the Shulhan Aruh (a code of Jewish law from the Medieval period), we learn that a woman who converts while pregnant does not have to immerse her child when s/he is born. From this, we might argue that the womb at the moment of birth is the determining factor in Jewish status. The issue of matrilineal descent is complicated, however, by contemporary technology and values. I don’t believe any one biological factor is more determinative than another in conveying Jewish status. As a rabbi who believes strongly in egalitarianism, it is important to me that the genetic contribution of a father is also recognized in the discussion of status. In that way, when three people are involved in the creative process (the egg donor, the sperm donor, and the womb donor) it seems only logical to give equal value to all parties.
To be clear, in my opinion a child who is conceived with at least one Jewish biological marker (womb, egg, sperm) and then is raised in a Jewish home should be seen as Jewish.
Regarding the combing of DNA to avoid genetic diseases, I would again argue that the issues at play are intensely complicated and cannot be fully discussed in this short response. However, Jewish tradition values the living over the potential of life. It is Maimonides (a medieval scholar) who argues that if the life of a living parent is threatened, then we do whatever is necessary to preserve the life that already exists.
While it is important to understand and balance technology with our values, I think that in general we give great deference to folks who are trying to avoid disease. I have sat with parents who are trying to determine whether to abort an unborn child who will have some of these incredibly painful and awful genetic mutations. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done – and I cannot imagine the pain of the potential parents.
That said, in this case, regardless of the genetic diseases, I can understand and appreciate the desire for a same-gendered couple to have a child where the DNA is taken from both parents. I think that Judaism has not yet caught up to this conversation, but that in general, Jewish tradition would still give preference to the parent who carried the child. In a more egalitarian understanding, we would name both genetic contributors, and give Jewish status as we would in the case of an egg donor – where any single genetic marker can convey Jewish status.
The Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards ruled in 1997 that it is the bearing mother who determines the religious identity of the child. (See Rabbi Aaron L. Mackler, "Maternal Identity and the Religious Status of Children Born to a Surrogate Mother, "http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/19912000/mackler_maternal.pdf). Thus if the bearing mother is Jewish, the child is Jewish regardless of the religious identity of the source of the sperm or egg. Conversely, if the bearing mother is not Jewish, the child needs to go through the rites of conversion, even if the sperm and egg providers are Jewish. That is not onerous: it involves brit milah (ritual circumcision) for a boy, as is required for every Jewish boy, and immersion in a natural body of water or a mikveh for both a boy or a girl, usually several months after the baby is born when he or she is used to a bath. The same would be true if two eggs were combined; the Jewish identity of the child would still depend on the bearing mother.
This position has been the accepted position in the Reform and Orthodox world as well until some Orthodox rabbis, primarily in Israel, have raised questions about it. So the answer depends on the religious affiliation of the person asking. If the person is Orthodox, he or she should ask his/her local rabbi; otherwise, Rabbi Mackler's position -- and the cogent reasons he gives for it -- is the accepted position among Conservative, Reform, and most Orthodox rabbis.
The identity of the "real" mother, of course, brings in many psychological issues as well as biological ones. This is true for children born with sperm donation as well as with egg donation. For most purposes, the adults who raise the child are the "real" parents of the child. So, for example, when the child is called to the Torah or marries, he or she would be identified by his/her Hebrew name, son/daughter of the Hebrew names of the people who raised him/her. Similarly, the filial duties of honoring and respecting one's parents (Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19:3) would apply to them as well. That said, biology does play an important role in who we are; it continues to be "nature and nurture." For a discussion of the halakhic and psychological issues involved in this, see Elliot N. Dorff, Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, Chapter Four.
First of all, let’s consider the question of the “real” mother. Since you put that word in quotation marks, it seems that you don’t mean for the term to be taken literally. And good for you! As far as Judaism should be concerned, the real parents of a child are the ones who care for that child and raise him or her to adulthood. It is for this reason that Reform Judaism holds the adoptive parents to be the real parents of a child (Teshuvot for the Nineties, CCAR Press, 1997, no. 5753.12, pp. 201-207).
So why don’t we rephrase the question slightly: “If a Jewish woman becomes pregnant using eggs donated from a non-Jewish woman… who is the biological mother of the child?” Is the child born a Jew according to the traditional doctrine that recognizes Jewish status according to maternal descent? The answer to this question is difficult, simply because the opinions are divided. For some time, the consensus view in Orthodox halakhah held that the child automatically followed the status of the birth mother. This situation seems to be changing, however, as Orthodox rabbis are beginning to recognize the egg donor as the child’s biological mother; see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304798204575183784267219258.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEFTThirdBucket . In the Reform responsa tradition, the egg donor is recognized as the biological mother of the child. This is a determination based simply on science: the egg donor, precisely like a sperm donor, provides half of the child’s genetic information. As Jewish law recognizes the sperm donor as the child’s biological father, so too it should regard the egg donor as the child’s biological mother. See Reform Responsa for the Twenty-First Century, CCAR Press, 2010, vol. 1, no5757.2, pp. 159-168.
The question about “combining the DNA of two women” is a new one that has not been clearly addressed, let alone answered, in Jewish law.
Two concluding points. First, as I’ve indicated, rabbis differ over the question of the Jewish legal maternity of a child such as the one you describe. Someday, a single consensus viewpoint on this question may emerge. Then again, it may not. In any event, until such time we shall have to live with ambiguity, with a plurality of opinions – which is precisely the way the Judaism has developed over the centuries. And second, to return to the point with which we began, the identity of those who raise the child is much more important than the identity of those who supply its genetic material. Those who raise the child are the child’s “real” parents, and that’s a fact we ought not to forget as we discuss these other issues.
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