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Interfaith Infertility Issues

May 2004

Several years ago I led a support group for women experiencing infertility. As often happened in such groups, members got to talking about why they were being "punished" with infertility. Spontaneously, the women began to offer up explanations for their suffering. One Jewish woman said, "I am being punished for intermarrying." The woman sitting next to her, also Jewish, said, "But I married a Jew. I guess I am being punished for marrying within the faith."

Many things have changed in the fifteen years that have passed since I witnessed this spontaneous confessional--and other things have stayed the same. Intermarriage is much more common. However, as reproductive medicine has gone "high tech," new sentiments and new dilemmas are arising for interfaith couples encountering infertility. The following is but a sampling of some of the brave new world of interfaith infertility.

"And God Remembered Sarah"--Theological Perspective and the Role of Prayer
Infertility, and the anguish that accompanies it, afflicted Judaism's founding mothers. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah all faced the pain of involuntary childlessness and all prayed to God with prayers that were answered.

In talking with interfaith couples, I have often found that the partners have different perspectives on God and on the role of prayer. My Catholic clients often talk of "the man upstairs," referring to God as something of a master puppeteer in charge of all that occurs in people's lives. They see God as having a "plan" and seem to feel they are at the mercy of that plan. Jewish clients, by contrast, perceive themselves as having a much greater "say" in determining their destiny. Although there are Jews, like the women in my long-ago support group, who see infertility as punishment, many simply accept a "bad things happen to good people" perspective.

And so Catholics (I very rarely have Protestant clients in the Boston area, where I work) and Jews facing infertility turn to prayer, it seems, with different expectations. My Catholic clients appear to pray to God in the hope that God will intervene on their behalf. For Jews, surely some seek divine intervention, but their prayers seem broader than that: my sense is that Jews pray for strength within themselves.

Infertility Post-Holocaust
As the world knows all too well, Hitler's mission was to eradicate the Jewish people. Thankfully, his efforts ultimately failed. Many documentaries on the Holocaust include mention of the countless lives that were generated from each survivor. For example, at the end of the magnificent documentary Into The Arms of Strangers, Tom Lantos, a survivor and now a Congressman from California serving in the U. S. House of Representatives, says that his daughters came to him when they were young women and told him they had made the decision to have large families. The camera then moves to a picture of Lantos surrounded by a bounty of grandchildren. His daughters, like other children of survivors, have heard the commandment loud and clear, to "be fruitful and multiply."

What does it mean to be unable to be fruitful and multiply? Even for those whose families were not personally decimated by the Holocaust, there is a feeling of wanting to bring new Jewish children into the world. Certainly adopting a child born to Christian birthparents and converting the child to Judaism is a time-honored way of creating new Jews, but for many experiencing infertility, adoption with conversion may not feel "good enough."

Ironically, one infertile Jewish couple who recently turned to sperm donation came upon a sperm donor whose reason for donating prompted them to feel very good about their decision to use donor sperm. On a donor questionnaire, their donor indicated that he was the son of Holocaust survivors and wanted to donate so that he could "populate the world" as much as he could.

For the non-Jewish member of an interfaith couple, the desire to replenish the Jewish people may not be personally compelling. However, those who have agreed--usually long in advance of attempting pregnancy--to raise their children as Jews will have some sense of what it means for their partner to bear children that contribute to Jewish continuity.

At one point, sperm donors, like the one mentioned above, were the only participants in what is now known as "third party" or "collaborative" reproduction. But now, at the dawn of the 21st century, we have other options, including egg donation, embryo donation and various forms of surrogacy. These brave new frontiers of reproduction are fundamentally altering the structure of families. Interestingly enough, they provide some curious twists and turns for interfaith couples. The following are but two examples.

The Jewish Egg
Just as there are Jewish sperm donors, so also are there Jewish egg donors. However, they are few and far between. And not surprisingly, given the feelings that many Jews have about passing on Jewish genes, Jewish couples often seek donors of their faith. Interfaith couples in which the Jewish partner is the woman are also likely to desire a Jewish donor.

Recently I met with an interfaith couple who were delighted to have found a Jewish donor. The non-Jewish wife spoke of her strong identification with Judaism, something that had pre-dated her marriage. She said that she had thought--for many years--about conversion but had done nothing about it. When she met and married a Jewish man, she said, she no longer felt a need to convert "because now I could have Jewish children." She went on to say that, for her, the Jewish egg donor completed the circle. The child she is expecting will "have real, Jewish genes."

Patrilineal Descent?
Since gay couples are now having and adopting children, it is not surprising that they, too, have their interfaith issues . . .

I recently met with a woman who plans to be a gestational carrier--a woman who carries and delivers a baby that is not her biological child--for a gay couple. In interviewing her, I learned that this will her second experience carrying for a gay couple and she noted that this couple, like her last, includes a Jewish partner and Christian. When I asked if religious affiliations came up in her last experience, she said that they did. "Since only one of the men could be the biological father and each set of grandparents wanted the child raised in their faith, the men decided not to tell anyone which one of them fathered the child. That way, they were free to choose whether to have a bris or a baptism."

And so we see that for interfaith couples encountering infertility, complex issues of faith and lineage arise amidst an array of medical and emotional challenges. Thankfully, many couples find that the experience of grappling with these issues strengthens their relationship, fortifying it for the long-wished-for terrain of parenthood.

 

Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Ellen S. Glazer

Ellen S. Glazer is a clinical social worker in private practice in Newton, Mass. Her work focuses on infertility, adoption, pregnancy loss and parenting after infertility. She is the author or co-author of six books, the most recent being Having Your Baby Through Egg Donation.

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