The Great Baby Debate

Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel by Susan Kahn, Duke University Press, $17.95

ISRAEL HAS MORE FERTILITY CLINICS per capita than any other country in the industrialized world. Its pioneering medical and clinical research have earned it an international reputation as a center for the diagnosis and treatment of childlessness, attracting patients from Europe, the Middle East, and even the United States. But even more intriguing is the fact that artificial insemination ovum donation, in-vitro fertilization and similar procedures are subsidized by the country’s national health insurance. Israel is also the first country in the world to legalize surrogate motherhood, providing contracting parties follow the guidelines set out in The Embryo-Carrying Agreements Law, passed in 1996.

The extraordinary pro-natalism expressed in these policies is underscored by the glaring absence of official interest in family limitation. In striking contrast to the state’s willingness to assist conception, family planning programs are funded almost completely by private, charitable sources. Neither contraception nor abortion, which is legal, is routinely part of the basic medical insurance coverage extended to all Israeli citizens.

Reproducing Jews is an ethnographic study of the social, legal, and personal ramifications of the technologies of assisted conception currently available in Israel. Susan Kahn accounts for this striking situation by demonstrating how a secular social welfare state and the religious courts converge around the issue of reproduction.

Though the book has much to say about the results of this complex juxtaposition, perhaps the most intriguing is that single motherhood through artificial insemination is widely accepted and socially supported. Such births occur regularly in Israel and even some modern Orthodox women have pursued this option. The overwhelming desire to create Jewish babies, a mainstay of Jewish religious and cultural life since Biblical times, is supported in modern-day Israel by Rabbinical law, which, in determining Jewish kinship as contingent solely on being born of a Jewish mother, has never required marriage (or even marriage to a Jewish man) as a prerequisite to legitimating children as full-fledged members of the Jewish people. In addition, traditional Jewish family and child-centeredness persists in powerful ways, reinforced by the demographic pressures of Palestinian and Arab birthrates, and memories of the six million lost in the Holocaust.

Kahn’s book nicely explores the complexities and contradictions that arise when reproductive technology is put to such social uses, and her analysis of the more guarded but generally positive response of the Orthodox to this technology is particularly insightful. She combines ethnography with explications of contemporary uses of legal and Rabbinic texts, drawing out interesting insights about the pressure the new technology places on Jewish and Western notions of family, kinship and current thinking about the reproductive potential of women’s bodies.

Regina Morantz-Sanchez is professor of history at the University of Michigan. Her most recent book is Conduct Unbecoming a Woman: Medicine on Trial in Turn of the Century Brooklyn (1999).