By Rabbi Dr. Richard Weiss
A halachic approach to Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) requires hashgachah (halachic supervision) of the process, lest exchanges of sperm, eggs, or embryos occur. Some rabbinic authorities raise the fear of deliberate tampering with patients’ samples; however, this is much less likely than is simple human error or carelessness on the part of doctors, nurses or technicians.
Artificial insemination (AI) and intrauterine insemination (IUI)
Artificial insemination using the husband’s sperm requires supervision to ensure that no exchange or mixture with foreign sperm occurs in the processing of the sample in the laboratory or at the time of insemination.
Exchanging or mixing the husband's sperm with that of another Jew raises serious issues. Some rabbinic authorities completely forbid donor sperm from a Jewish source. They argue that the resulting child would be a mamzer, an illegitimate child equivalent to one born out of an adulterous union. Another concern is the potential for the child born via artificial insemination of sperm from an anonymous Jewish donor to marry a half-sibling, i.e., another child of the same donor, resulting in a halachically incestuous relationship.
All authorities agree that the above concerns do not apply in the case of a non-Jewish sperm donor. Sperm of a non-Jew cannot create a mamzer, and the non-Jew’s other, naturally conceived, children have no halachic relationship with their Jewish half-siblings. Some rabbinic authorities, therefore, permit a non-Jewish sperm donor for artificial insemination when the husband’s sperm is unavailable or unusable. However, when the husband’s sperm is available, hashgachah is certainly necessary to prevent even the remotest possibility of inadvertent exchange of the husband’s sample with that of a non-Jew.
In vitro fertilization (IVF)
IVF procedures share the above considerations in avoiding exchange of sperm, but they also involve verifying the identity of the wife’s oocyte, or egg sample. The transfer of the preembryo, or fertilized egg, occurs about three days after fertilization, and there is a need for continual supervision during that period. Because the Jewish identity of the child is determined by the mother, any exchange of the Jewish mother’s oocyte with that of a non-Jew would raise questions as to the child’s status, without conversion. Unwitting exchange with another Jewish woman’s egg sample would, once again, raise the question of a future incestuous marriage. All this is, of course, in addition to the obvious and natural concern by the husband and wife that the egg and sperm be theirs and no one else’s.
Standards of supervision
The goal of hashgachah is to incorporate a verification scheme so as to avoid any possible question of lineage or future possibility of an incestuous relationship.
In Jewish law, the gold standard for the verification and validation of events is the testimony of two witnesses. Two witnesses are necessary in matters of consanguine relationships and personal status such as marriage and divorce (ein davar sheb’ervah pachot mishnayim). Since ART has ramifications in these areas, it could be argued that two halachically-acceptable witnesses are needed at every stage.
On the other hand, the extensive labeling and verification procedures already in use by ART clinics should be taken into account. Simanim (physical identifiers) as a legitimate mechanism of verification has much precedent in Jewish law, at times equivalent to witnesses. In ART we are directly concerned only with verification of the samples and the integrity of the procedures, which may not require two witnesses. “Eid echad ne’eman b’issurin” – one witness is relied upon in the area of prohibited and permitted substances and activities. Accordingly, the field of ART would be equivalent to the domain of kosher dietary law, where one halachic mashgiach (supervisor) is sufficient. One rabbinic authority even permits artificial insemination of the husband’s sperm with the sole stipulation that the physician directly involved is reputable and not suspected of malfeasance, and that a second health professional be present at all times as insurance against mix-ups. According to this view, outside verification is not required.
In any case, a well-trained and informed mashgiach, in addition to the built-in safeguards of ART protocols, should alleviate any concerns. The seriousness of the issues involved compels the prudent use of every means available to ensure the integrity of ART.
A list of ART clinics in the New York City area offering hashgachah for patients who request it is available on this site.