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Religion and Third-Party Reproduction
by Melodie Shank, Consultant, Fertility SOURCE Companies, March 7, 2012
While most individuals in the United States possess at least a rudimentary understanding of what fertility treatment is, their opinions and attitudes on the subject are likely the result in whole or in part of their individual belief systems. Even though reproductive technologies are new and unfamiliar territory, by now most major religions have established teachings and philosophies pertaining to the existence of and use of assisted reproduction, each of them drawing from and interpreting their key doctrines for guidance.
The subject of religion comes up often in our field, and as technologies evolve and assisted reproduction becomes more attainable for more people in the United States and abroad, religion will continue to play a role in people’s decisions and distinctions related to infertility treatment. In this article we will take a look at the stances on fertility treatment of three major religions, Catholicism, Judaism and Islam.
The Roman Catholic Church has long rejected any reproductive technologies that manipulate human embryos. The Catholic Church only condones procedures that "assist" conception that would happen naturally. This means that the egg and the sperm must meet on their own and this union must occur within the biological mother's natural reproductive system. The church teachings allow two types of reproductive assistance, Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) and Gamete Intrafallopian Tube Transfer (GIFT). Both procedures are approved by the church as long as masturbation is not the method for collecting the sperm. The church forbids third-party reproduction, specifically egg donation and surrogacy, whether traditional or gestational.
In Jewish teachings in vitro fertilization (IVF) using the father and mother’s sperm and eggs is generally accepted (although there is some debate here), but it requires rabbinical supervision to be considered halachic, or in accordance with Jewish law. When considering donated eggs or sperm, there again is not a complete consensus. With respect to egg donation and surrogacy, there is debate as to whether the status of the child is based on the egg donor’s heritage, the woman carrying the child, or both. In response to this ambiguity, recently a law was passed in Israel which allows women to donate their eggs for infertile couples. The law provides that a baby born through IVF will be the legal child of the birth mother, rather than the egg donor. The egg donor’s identity is not disclosed, but a national database will allow recipients of egg donations to check the religion of the donor. There has been recent controversy related to rulings by some Israeli Orthodox rabbis that whether a child is Jewish under the rules of matrilineal descent relies on the donor’s descent, not the birth mother, as language pertaining to the subject of procreation and descent in Jewish text references the “seed.”
As reproductive technologies have evolved so rapidly, modern Muslim jurists have found it necessary to research the subject of assisted reproduction as it relates to the Koran. They reached an Ijtihad (decision based on Islamic Law) on IVF and determined that the practice is permissible provided that the semen and ovum are from a couple who are legally married and that the fertilization takes place during their marriage, but not after divorce or the death of the husband. The Sunni Muslim (Sunni’s represent about 85-90 percent of the Muslim population) position on third party reproduction states that no third party should interfere with the marital acts of sex and procreation. This means that a third party donor is not allowed, whether he or she is providing sperm, eggs, embryos or a uterus. The use of a third party in any respect is considered adultery. All forms of surrogacy are forbidden. A Muslim woman may not serve as a donor or surrogate, nor a man as sperm donor.
As assisted reproductive technologies progress and become more accessible to larger populations, as with most societal shifts, it is likely that the disquiet surrounding the heated debates related to religion will cool. Religion is one of the most powerful factors shaping the opinions of the general public and while the interpretation of the texts by religious leaders may not shift, as with many things, the more commonplace fertility treatment becomes, the more tolerant the public’s perspective may become, belief systems aside.
Melodie Shank, Consultant to Fertility SOURCE Companies, has worked in the field of Reproductive Health and Third-Party Reproduction for the past ten years. She has worked extensively with intended parents, ovum donors and gestational carriers and now serves as an independent consultant to Fertility Source Companies. She resides in North Carolina and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in public health.