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Focus on Issues: Women’s Groups Join Rabbis to Oppose Legalizing Surrogacy

A proposed law to legalize surrogate motherhood in Israel is at the center of a debate between those who want to satisfy the desires of infertile couples and those, such as women’s groups and some rabbis, who oppose the very notion of surrogacy.

For the hundreds of infertile Israeli couples who see surrogacy as their only hope of having a child, the issue is clear: The proposed law, which just passed the first of three required readings in the Knesset and is now being debated, must not place “unreasonable” limitations on the couple or the surrogate mother.

For others, including women’s rights activists and the rabbinical establishment, the issue is equally clear-cut.

Women’s groups charge that surrogacy violates the surrogate mother’s civil rights by turning her into a “womb for hire.”

Rabbis, including Yehuda Amital, whom Prime Minister Shimon Peres recently appointed to the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio, believe that the bill, as drafted, violates Jewish law.

If the surrogacy will becomes law, Israel will become the second country to legalize surrogacy, following in the footsteps of England.

Some U.S. states had also passed surrogacy legislation.

While the debate rages inside and outside the Knesset, no one can deny that Israel is already at the forefront of fertility technology.

However, even though tens of thousands of infertile Israeli couples benefit from in vitro fertilization and other standard fertility techniques, thousands more never conceive.

Some, mostly well-to-do and younger than 40, are able to adopt either in Israel or overseas.

Until now, many had no other options.

About 50 infertile couples petitioned the High Court more than a year ago, arguing that the regulations banning surrogacy were illegal because they violated their civil rights.

Fearful of media attention, only one of the petitioners agreed to be interviewed, provided that her name was not published.

“We have been married for almost eight years, and we can’t have children,” said the 39-year-old woman. “My husband is 44 and we’re considered too old to adopt a child.”

“We’ve heard of cases where a couple adopts a child and then, without warning, the adoption is canceled,” she said. “We want a child to be a part of us, at least partly our flesh and blood. There are many people like us. We just want to be parents.”

The High Court agreed with the petitioners, ruling that the regulations would be abolished Dec. 31, 1995. The court ordered the Knesset to come up with a law that would regulate every aspect of surrogacy, from the issue of payment to the mother to the identity of sperm donors.

Although the new law was to go into effect Monday, to coincide with the abolishment of the anti-surrogacy legislation, it is still tied up in the Knesset.

To prevent the unregulated practice of surrogacy until the bill is approved, the High Court has given the Knesset until March 7 to finalize a new law.

Should the Knesset pass the surrogacy bill in its current form – a virtual impossibility, given the opposition – surrogacy would be a relatively simple procedure.

Even so, there would be several preconditions.

The couple must first be approved by a special committee composed of three physicians, a lawyer, a clinical psychologist, a social worker and a member of the clergy.

Although the bill stipulates that only one of the “commissioning” parents donate sperm or ova (eggs), it forbids the surrogate mother from donating ova. It also stipulates that the surrogate be an Israeli resident, single and unrelated to the couple.

The proposal would also regulate monthly payments to the surrogate mother in order to cover her expenses and compensate her for loss of time and income. Those attempting to circumvent the system could face a year in prison.

While acknowledging the anguish felt by infertile couples, women’s groups are solidly opposed to the surrogacy bill.

“We think that a surrogacy contract constitutes a womb-for-hire agreement,” said Orit Sulitzeanu, spokeswoman for the Israel Women’s Network. “In some ways it is similar to prostitution, even to slavery. In a modern, enlightened society, a woman should not be paid to carry someone else’s baby.”

In the network’s view, surrogacy robs the surrogate of basic rights.

“During pregnancy, a surrogate mother is not totally autonomous,” Sulitzeanu said. “She doesn’t have the right to make decisions about her own life and her own body. She must obey other people’s demands because she has signed a contract.”

The Network, Na’amat and other women’s groups also argue that in England and those American states that permit surrogacy, women who become surrogate mothers often do so out of desperation. “This kind of contract attracts the poorest women, just like prostitution. Surrogate motherhood turns the status of women back 100 years,” Sulitzeanu said.

“A much better solution,” she added, “would be to create a better, more efficient system of adoption.”

Although their reasons for opposing the bill differ from those of women’s groups, rabbinical authorities would also like to block, or at least amend, the bill.

“In the bill’s original version, either the eggs or sperm may be donated by a stranger,” said Avraham Avishai, spokesman for Rabbi Yehuda Amital.

Avishai added: “We have proposed a second version requiring the sperm to be donated from the commissioning father.”

Permitting sperm donations from strangers – for example, through a sperm bank – “could lead to problems of incest as well as to genetic and health problems,” Avishai said.

“At the very least, there needs to be a system of checks and balances, a way to prevent a brother from marrying a sister while at the same time ensuring privacy for everyone involved.”

But Erica Hirschmann, a lawyer representing several infertile couples, believes that a law requiring the commissioning man to provide his own sperm “will rule out surrogacy for couples where the male is infertile.”

Should Amital’s version pass, she said, “it could erode the religious status quo since sperm bank donations are already acceptable in cases of an vitro fertilization.”

Hirschmann charges that the new law, even in its original draft form, “is too restrictive.”

“My clients don’t think an official law is necessary,” she said. “As it is, the law limits those who can be surrogate mothers, and the price will be too high.”

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