Unit 4 revisions

Ally Brennan

The texts for week four all discuss the issue of reproductive technology for Jews, and more specifically Israeli Jews. “Ethnography Exegesis and Jewish Ethical Reflection: The New Reproductive Technologies in Israel ” by Don Seeman describes and analyzes the differing ways of interpretation that cause different perspectives on reproductive technology between Jews and Catholics, with France used as a secular comparison. “Modern Reproductive Technologies and Jewish Law” by Michael Broyde gives an outline of legal issues that may exist regarding cloning in Judaism, while Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel by Susan Kahn is an ethnographic study done in Israel on women who use reproductive technology. These three sources offer different analyses on the general topic of reproductive technology in Israel, and, when read together, offer a holistic view of the issue. This blog post will first examine each text individually. To conclude, it will synthesize the pertinent information from each source to provide a greater understanding of the use of reproductive technology in Israel.

“Ethnography Exegesis and Jewish Ethical Reflection: The New Reproductive Technologies in Israel” aims to reveal the importance of how different cultures interpret things within the reproductive technology debate. France, which is used as a secular comparison in this text, makes decisions that align with what is considered “natural;” as a result, they limit IVF to heterosexual, steril married couples, as historically, and traditonally, this would be representative of a natural family. In contrast, Israel relies heavily on religious texts, which is similar to Catholics. There is a difference between where Jews and Catholics find their answers in religious texts; Catholics tend to find answers in the beginning of Genesis and use narrative to find answers, while Jews often look for legal prohibitions. Furthermore, in the debate around reproductive technology, Jews rely more on Leviticus than Genesis. This difference, in part, can explain how these two religions have very different answers for the question of when and how to use reproductive technology, despite using the same source. Donum Vitae, the accepted doctrine on reproductive technology for Catholics, states that IVF should really only be used if doing IVF with the husband’s sperm. In Israel reproductive technology is used for many different reasons and in multiple different forms; Israel, in fact, is the leading country for IVF. There is a cultural history in Israel that also helps account for this difference in perspective in addition to the legal readings of religious texts. For instance, it is a pronatalist country, and thus encourages high birth rates. Consequently, in order to understand the contrasting viewpoints that different cultures have towards reproductive technology, it is important to examine aspects beyond interpretations of texts, and consider other elements such as the experiences of individuals who live within these societies. The consideration of multiple societal components (interpretations of texts, culture, lived experience) allows for a more complete understanding of the complex arguments regarding reproductive technology.

 Broyde focuses specifically on the legal issues of cloning within Israel, and within Jewish law. He notes that “the Jewish tradition is betwixt and between two obligations:” the belief surrounding the importance of helping others, and the belief that everything may not be proper, particularly when related to intercourse (Broyde 296). These two beliefs come into direct conflict in the debate around reproductive technology. In Israel, decisions about the use of reproductive technology are handled case by case. Every couple or individual must go through a screening process, and many consult a rabbi, who may make a specific recommendation based on the circumstances of the person/people seeking out reproductive technology (Kahn). Therefore, it is logical to assume that if human cloning were to take place, it would also be handled case by case. The specifics of cloning lead to many questions, particularly in relation to kinship. Because a clone would be the exact genetic copy of another person, there is much debate over who the parents of such a child would be. Judaism is matrilineal, which complicates cloning if the genetic donor is female. In this case, there are debates on who would be considered the mother: the gestational mother, or genetic mother. If one woman was not Jewish, the status of the child would be in jeopardy, creating a situation in which the child “should be converted” (Broyde 306). On the other hand, if the donated genetic material came from a man, assigning a status to the child becomes less complex as the donor would be the father, and the woman who gestates the child the mother. If the gestational mother were Jewish, the child would be Jewish as well. One could assume that there would still be rules about what male could donate the genetic material to avoid creating a mamzer child, as explained by Kahn. 

There is also the question of whether a clone would be considered human, and if they may be used in immoral ways. Broyde references that some fear “society will mislabel cloned individuals as something other than human and use them as organ sources” (313). Broyde, by analyzing Jewish law, determines that this individual would be considered fully human and “treated with the full dignity of any human being,” nullifying the argument that clones would not be considered people (315). Finally, the issue of cloning opens up a new ethical debate over who has access to someone’s DNA, and the issues of stealing someone’s DNA. Because an individual’s DNA could be easily accessed and used for cloning, there would have to be strong legislation in place to protect people and their genetic material, though the extent of this would likely be heavily debated.

Finally, Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel by Susan Kahn offers an ethnographic account of the experience of using reproductive technology in Israel. Kahn’s research spanned two years, and she conducted interviews, attended support groups, conducted participant observation at fertility centers, and interviewed rabbis. She analyzed the decision making process that women go through before using reproductive technology, and found that there were many unmarried women who used reproductive technology in order to have a child. Because reproductive tech is subsidized by the government, Kahn found that all potential mothers have to go through a screening process, which did create some opportunity for discriminiation for lesbian couples. She also examined the relationship between rabbinic law and the secular democracy of Israel in relation to reproductive technology. The Aloni commission, which was a report created by rabbis, legislatures, and fertility experts, stated that unmarried women do have the right to have children, and that these children would exist without that stigma of being mamzer, or a bastard child. Furthermore, she expands on the idea that in Israel decisions made about reproductive tech are done on a case by case basis by examining how paternity works in these cases, as it is often up to a rabbi to decide these matters. She also examines how important purity is in fertility clinics in order to maintain Jewish identity. Surrogacy is also dealt with, which reveals the complexities involved in Jewish kinship; because it is matrilineal, deciding who the mother is in surrogacy affects the identity of the child. Overall, I thought Kahn was effective in outlying the process of seeking reproductive technology in Israel, and the complex social factors that cause each individual’s decision. Because Israel is a pronatalist, and one of the crux ideas is to “be fruitful and multiply,” many single women seek out this technology to reproduce without stigma.

I found that these three sources really complimented each other, and helped to fill in the gaps apparent in each source. For instance, I thought that while Kahn’s book gave a comprehensive description of current reproductive technologies in Israel, Broyde’s analysis on the potential of cloning added a perspective on what could develop in the future. Furthermore, I thought that the framing provided in Seeman’s piece provided context for the interpretations seen both in Broyde and Kahn’s work, while Kahn’s work in particular provided examples of the lived experiences that Seeman states are needed to understand this issue. What I found most interesting in these issues was the discussion of the complicated area of kinship. The matrilineal aspect of Judaism is particularly interesting because this increases the complex nature of kinship and reproductive technology. In paternal societies, issues of reproductive technology and kinship are still incredibly complex. However, the debate is different because the transmission of identity is not paramount when assigning the label of mother to either the gestational or genetic mother. One critique I have of Broyde and Kahn’s work is there is no cross cultural comparison; while Seeman’s article contributes this, on their own these pieces do not offer these nuanced views. I believe that a comparison would help to emphasize the different approaches to reproductive technology across cultures, ultimately generating a deeper understanding of why the decisions around reproductive technology in Israel are unique.

Finally, I found all three texts to be well organized and easy to read. In particular, I enjoyed how Kahn outlined her book as I thought it gave a logical, sequential description of the process of using reproductive technology in Israel. Furthermore, I enjoyed how each source outlined key questions that related to the issues discussed. This, I thought, was particularly important because it is essential to recognize that not all questions can be answered when dealing with such a complex issue. Because there are so many different debates that must be addressed when discussing reproductive technology, it is impossible for one source to answer every question. Therefore, I thought that both Broyde and Kahn did a good job of focusing on specific questions in order to not overwhelm the reader. Furthermore, each author recognized that there also were simply questions that are unanswerable. Kahn, for example, concludes her book by asking a series of questions revolving around changing kinship in Israel, the final being “and if the ends make means irrelevant, what will the texture of Jewish life be like?” (Kahn 171). This question reveals the depth of the questions possible to ask when dealing with reproductive technology. This question cannot be answered because, at least currently, there is no answer. This question reflects the reality that there will always be unknowns when dealing with the ethical questions surrounding biotechnology. I thought that the inclusion of unanswerable questions improved both Kahn and Broyde’s work, as it showed that both scholars acknowledged the limitations of their work. This acknowledgement, I think, made both works seem more reliable and also more engaging, as it encouraged the reader to think about how complex the topic of  reproductive technology really is.

Discussion Questions:

  • There are clear issues regarding gender in the debate around reproductive technology. How might changing ideas of gender (i.e. increased gender fluidity) play out in this debate?
  • Why are ideas of kinship so essential in the debate of reproductive technology in Israel? 
  • How does Israel’s pronatalism influence the use of reproductive technology? How is its specific history related, and how (and why) does this contrast with views on reproductive tech seen in Catholicism? Do you think this will change over time?
  • Clearly, there are issues around the general morality of cloning. Broyde mentions the idea of the “slippery slope,” which includes fears of organ harvesting, or the use of clones for experimentation (Broyde 312). Do you think that people will ever find cloning to be morally acceptable and ethical? Or will these greater fears outweigh the potential benefits human cloning could have?

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