The Orthodox website Kipa.co.il billed the Kolech conference on fertility as an “anti-Puah” event. Puah is an institute that helps couples with issues related to sexual health and fertility in a halachic framework. (A representative of Kolech insisted that the headline was invented by Kipa.)
I gathered from the forum discussion that the main complaint against Puah is that it tends to be machmir on certain issues, perhaps because they want to be acceptable to a haredi clientele. This means that fewer options might be offered to infertile couples, especially if the problem lies with the man. And since most fertility treatments for women involve hormones, they may increase risk of cancer and other health problems.
This ties into the lecture by Ronit Ir-Shai of the gender studies program in Bar-Ilan, who spoke on “Halacha and Fertility: Ideology and Reality.” Ir-Shai was the most outspoken and “feminist” of the speakers. She raised many issues that made me uncomfortable, and I suspect some readers will be as well. If you come here for inspiring stories or aliyah tips, and feminism makes you cringe, you may want to stop reading.
Ir-Shai quoted many rabbinic sources, but I wasn’t able to get them all down. The conference was taped and I hope it is available on line.
Ir-Shai started off by saying that only in recent times has abortion been viewed solely as an issur de-orayta. In previous generations, some poskim held that it was de-rabbanan. Most rabbis today only permit abortions in the case of real physical danger to the woman. If there is a problem with the baby including Down Syndrome, leniencies are also found. But if the mother has financial, personal or career reasons for wishing to end the pregnancy, these are not taken into consideration.
The same thing is true with birth control. The rabbis give little weight to considerations of finances and chinuch. A great deal of self-sacrifice is expected from women, in order to continue to have more children.
When it comes to technological advances in fertility, however, the opposite is true. Rabbis permit artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood without much debate. The only halachic discussion about surrogacy is about which mother is considered the halachic mother. Except for Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, no rabbi has brought up the ethical issues involved, such as whether surrogate motherhood takes advantage of underprivileged women, and the ethics of —œrenting— someone’s body part.
Ir-Shai concluded that when it comes to questions that limit birth, like abortion and birth control, the rabbis are extremely strict. But when it comes to matters that encourage birth, leniencies are found to allow new technologies. And these technologies cause women to suffer, as does the push to have more children.
Ir-Shai maintains that the woman’s point of view in these issues is not considered. The woman is simply seen as a vessel for producing more children.
She then went on to quote a number of responsa by well-known poskim, including rishonim, that were much more lenient about both birth control and abortion. Yet today their opinions are rarely cited.
- machmir: rules strictly on Jewish law.
- poskim: arbiters of Jewish law
- issur de-orayta: a prohibition on the Torah level, with little room for lenience
- issur de-rabanan: a rabbinic prohibition, allowing more leeway than de-orayta
- chinuch: education. This doesn’t mean tuition, but the ability to raise the child properly.
- rishonim: poskim from after the talmudic period (10th to 15th century), whose opinions hold extra weigh in Jewish law.
Thanks to reader Keren for sending me the links to the Kipa discussions.
Ynet report on conference (English)