Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel

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Overview

There are more fertility clinics per capita in Israel than in any other country in the world and Israel has the world's highest per capita rate of in-vitro fertilization procedures. Fertility treatments are fully subsidized by Israeli national health insurance and are available to all Israelis, regardless of religion or marital status. These phenomena are not the result of unusually high rates of infertility in Israel but reflect the centrality of reproduction in Judaism and Jewish culture.

In this ethnographic study of the new reproductive technologies in Israel, Susan Martha Kahn explores the cultural meanings and contemporary rabbinic responses to artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization, egg donation, and surrogacy. Kahn draws on fieldwork with unmarried Israeli women who are using state-subsidized artificial insemination to get pregnant and on participant-observation in Israeli fertility clinics. Through close readings of traditional Jewish texts and careful analysis of Israeli public discourse, she explains how the Israeli embrace of new reproductive technologies has made Jewish beliefs about kinship startlingly literal. Kahn also reveals how a wide range of contemporary Israelis are using new reproductive technologies to realize their reproductive futures, from ultraorthodox infertile married couples to secular unmarried women.

As the first scholarly account of assisted conception in Israel, this multisited ethnography will contribute to current anthropological debates on kinship studies. It will also interest those involved with Jewish studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is a deeply compelling and timely book situating Israeli debates about the use of reproductive technology within the context of kinship theory.”—Sarah Franklin, author of Embodied Progress: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception

"Susan Kahn has given us a first class example of how contemporary ethnography can illuminate the cultural dimensions of the brave new world of new reproductive technologies. Reproducing Jews offers a very different way of conceiving of the relationship between technological change and social life. Sophisticated and well-written, it will be welcomed not only by scholars in a number of fields—anthropology, sociology, feminist studies, Jewish studies, medical anthropology, bioethics—but by those who are curious as to how science, religion, and the desire for children intersect within a particular context."—Faye Ginsburg, New York University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822325987
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Series: Body, Commodity, Text Series
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Martha Kahn is Associate Director at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

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Read an Excerpt

Reproducing Jews

A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel


By Susan Martha Kahn

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7820-4



CHAPTER 1

"The time arrived but the father didn't:" A New Continuum of Israeli Conception


If you're not a mother, you don't exist in Israeli society. —Social worker in a Jerusalem fertility clinic

It is a hot Jerusalem night in July, and I am sitting on a large, rooftop patio with six Israeli women. We are drinking Diet Coke and lemonade, eating pretzels and olives, and discussing reproductive decisions and dilemmas. These women have been meeting monthly for over a year as a support group for unmarried women who are considering artificial insemination. Everyone refers to it as the "maybebaby" group.

They know I am writing about them, in fact they call me the "spy," but I have assured them that I will not reveal their real identities (all names have been changed to protect the identities of participants) and so I have become a regular member. We have all gotten to know each other over the past months, and everyone is joking around. Tonight a new member has joined, so everyone gives more personal background information than usual. After a long, informal chat about work, politics, food, and relationships, the "formal" discussion begins with a go-around.

Hagit, a thirty-eight-year-old teacher who lives in Jerusalem, goes first:

I see each stage of getting pregnant in and of itself, to look at the whole process from beginning to end is like looking at a huge mountain, it's too much. I try not to think about it, the more I think about it the less natural it seems. There is a limit to all the thinking you can do. Other people just get pregnant and are parents without thinking twice about it, why should I obsess about something that is so natural for most people? I was thinking a lot about it, how do it, with a man or not, the sperm bank. I chose the sperm bank because to make an agreement with someone you don't love to have a child is very problematic. It seems unfair to divide the child in two before he is even born. Working out the problems in a relationship is difficult enough.

You have to get shots, then checkups, then go to work, then shots, checkups, ultrasound, work, fit in Pesach vacation, and on and on. If all goes well it should only take a month from first checkup to interviews to insemination. But with me it takes longer because I have trouble getting pregnant. I took a Chorigon (hormone) shot yesterday and I get the insemination tomorrow morning at 7:30 A.M. [Everyone wished her luck.]


Katya, a forty-year-old nurse, was next:

I'm taking a break. I got through all the stages until they told me I need a measles vaccination and must wait three months to continue. It's given me time to think. I'm going to Turkey to take a break, I'm not so sure now that I really want to raise a child alone. I started thinking about how hard it is to be a single parent. I'm not sure that's what I want. I know what it is to be tired, I know how much work it is to have a baby, I'm not so sure now.


Tamar, the new member, spoke next:

I grew up in Jerusalem but I live in London now. I was married for ten years to an Israeli guy, my high school sweetheart. After a few years, I found out he was infertile, it's a long story, but we ended up breaking up. I had five unsuccessful inseminations in London, and so I came back to Israel for a few months to check out the options here, and to see my family and friends. Maybe I will have better luck here, I thought.

An interesting thing happened a few weeks ago, I met an old friend from the army, a gay man, and we started talking. It turned out he really wants a child, too. So it seemed perfect, and we got very excited about it. But now I am starting to feel less sure about it, he wants too much from my life. I am leaning toward the sperm bank again. I think it's important what you say, Hagit, that you don't want to divide the child before he is born. I sort of assumed that people who chose the sperm bank option were people who had trouble forming relationships, but I'm not so sure that that's true, maybe it comes from a certain maturity about the relationship that you are in.


Everyone thanked Tamar and welcomed her to the group. Chana spoke next; she said she had made no "progress" and was still in the thinking stages. Then came Vardit. She said that she had recently told the women in her office that she was starting to inseminate, and they were all very supportive. "It was a big step," she said, "to talk about it at work. I was afraid of the reactions. But I was missing so much time because of all the doctor's appointments I had to say something. One woman in my office made it seem very simple, she just said to me: 'the time arrived, but the father didn't.' It makes it much easier now that everyone knows."

The discussion on that hot July night echoed many of the individual interviews I conducted with unmarried Jewish women, both heterosexual and lesbian, religious and secular, who were seeking to get pregnant via artificial insemination in Israel. In addition to confronting a wide range of emotions in their journeys to become mothers, they had to be extraordinarily determined and persistent to navigate the sea of logistical hurdles that make up the Israeli insemination bureaucracy. A complex kind of reproductive agency informs these pathways to pregnancy. It is a reproductive agency that assumes reproduction is something one can take into one's own hands and accomplish on one's own, that is bolstered by deep cultural beliefs that motherhood is the most primal and natural goal for women, and that is enabled by the traditional rabbinic belief that children born to unmarried women are considered legitimate, full-fledged Jews.

In this chapter I delineate eight stages that help conceptualize unmarried women's experiences of artificial insemination and autonomous motherhood in Israel. The stages serve as a heuristic device to make literal a new process through which Jews are reproduced in Israel. These stages are not always discreet, nor do they often flow smoothly one after the other. Rather, they are often interrupted by long gaps, as women cope with the frustrations of unsuccessful inseminations, lingering doubts, or other intervening life events. Nevertheless, when read as a sequence, these stages illuminate the lived experience of artificial insemination for unmarried Israeli women.

I animate these stages with select commentaries culled from interviews with a random assortment of thirty-five unmarried Israeli women I interviewed between 1994 and 1996, as well as those in the "maybebaby" group. The unmarried mothers among whom I gathered life stories and whose lives I shared during my fieldwork were randomly assembled; they do not constitute any sort of spatially bounded population, nor are they united by any particular ethnic characteristics, besides the fact that they are all Israeli Jews. They comprise a group only because they were the women who agreed to participate in my research during a particular two-year time period.

I conclude my explication of the eight stages that characterize assisted conception for unmarried women in Israel with additional perspectives on autonomous motherhood made manifest in the experiences of Israeli lesbians and unmarried religious women who conceive via artificial insemination. I then examine short narratives about artificial insemination as an individual strategy for negotiating loss in specific instances.


How Did You Get Pregnant?

When I arrived in Israel to begin my research with unmarried Israeli women, I was initially quite embarrassed to ask what seemed to be very intimate questions about personal reproductive choices, but I was quickly put at ease by my research subjects and their apparent willingness to divulge the intricate details of their reproductive lives. I think the fact that I was both single and Jewish made it easier for them to confide in me, for they could identify with me as being like them. And yet I think the fact that I was an American reified the distance between us and made it clear that they had to explain things carefully to me and could not take it for granted that I would understand anything. Most of my research subjects had been to college, so the concept of research was familiar to them and the form of discourse between interviewer and interviewee was not alien or off-putting. Moreover, most of the unmarried women I interviewed were economically advantaged. They held well-paying jobs, most of them owned their own cars, and most had traveled abroad; in other words, they were part of the Israeli middle class. Most were Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin), though a substantial minority was Sephardi or Mizrachi (Jews of Spanish, North African, or Asian origins). Ethnicity was not a central category for delineating my research subjects, however; not only did they come from various ethnic backgrounds, they seldom invoked ethnicity as a significant characteristic of their individual identities. In addition, it must be understood that the women I interviewed were overwhelmingly secular, for reasons that will become clear.

The community I studied, then, must be understood as an "imagined" one, and it was I, the anthropologist, who was imagining it. Unmarried Israeli mothers themselves do not self-identify as a distinctive group; their self-definitions range from descriptions of their political beliefs to their jobs to their cities of birth or residence.

I conducted almost all my interviews in the homes of the women I interviewed, often with babies sleeping in the next room or with children jumping around on the sofa beside me. I think being in their own homes helped the interviewees feel more comfortable, even if it sometimes made it difficult for me to concentrate. I became friends with some of the women I interviewed, and as I got to know them more personally they would invite me over for babies' birthdays, holiday celebrations, and so on. It was in these more informal meetings that I learned a lot about their lives and the contexts in which they made their reproductive choices. Some of the women I met also invited me to accompany them on their visits to the fertility clinic.

I told everyone I knew and everyone I met about my research. It would turn out that so-and-so's sister was getting artificially inseminated, or so-and-so's hairdresser had just had a child on her own, or the ex-wife of someone's brother was in fertility treatment. These kinds of leads led me to my interviewees. I would ask if I could call the person in question, and the liaison would either give me the phone number directly or call ahead first. Eventually, I was able to make these initial phone calls with a minimum of anxiety. But I could never quite get over how strange it felt to call up people, out of the blue, and ask them if I could interview them about how they got pregnant, or how they wanted to get pregnant.

Once a woman agreed to be interviewed, I usually went to her house and spoke with her there, though sometimes I initially met interviewees in cafes or in their workplace. The "house interviews" would last anywhere from one to four hours. Sometimes they would last significantly longer: I called one woman in Haifa who was the mother of a three-year-old son whom she had conceived through artificial insemination, and she invited me to stay with her for the weekend, sight unseen. After these initial meetings, I would arrange follow-ups depending on the circumstances. In addition, I posted signs in fertility clinics in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa that said I was a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University and was interested in interviewing women who had been artificially inseminated or who were considering it. These public notices were significantly less effective for contacting interviewees than word of mouth.

After I had been in Israel for almost a year and a half, unmarried women began to find me. I had become known as someone who knew a lot about the reproductive resources in the country and as someone who knew what was involved in fertility treatment. One of my favorite "informants" turned up at my door one cold March afternoon after having met some friends of mine camping in the desert. She wanted to get artificially inseminated, and my friends told her that I had information about how to do it in Israel.

Almost all the women I interviewed I found "through the grapevine." Israel is a small country, people very helpful, and I slowly found my way from one person to another over the course of many months. Indeed, the research would have been impossible in a place where reproduction was considered to be a more private matter than it is in Israel. There was a level of openness and a readiness to reveal intimate facts that continually surprised me and proved crucial to the success of my research.

It is important to point out, however, that I encountered this openness among a very particular population in Israel: secular Jews who were using reproductive technologies not to solve infertility but to achieve autonomous conception. It would have been significantly more methodologically problematic to concentrate my research exclusively on infertile Jews, particularly those who are religiously observant. Not only do outsiders generally encounter resistance trying to enter more religious social worlds in Israel, infertility is often shrouded in secrecy and shame in these communities, making it even more difficult to conduct in-depth ethnographic research.

Before I describe the eight stages I have delineated, it is important to understand some additional features of the social context in which unmarried women in Israel choose to pursue pregnancy via artificial insemination. Unmarried Israeli women make this choice within a culture of high visibility and state support for unmarried mothers. In fact, though far from ubiquitous, unmarried mothers have long been a familiar part of the social landscape in Israel. Some are war Widows whose husbands were killed while serving in the Israeli army. Others are divorcees, whose numbers are growing as Israeli Divorce rates rise. Still others are unmarried mothers by choice, who choose to have children outside marriage while living in stable, long-term relationships with their male partners (Israel has one of the highest cohabitation rates in the world). Many are new immigrants from the former Soviet Union; since 1989 over one million of these immigrants have arrived in Israel, over half of whom are women, and many of whom are single parents. Finally, some are unmarried women who choose to conceive on their own, either via reproductive technology or through other means.

Unmarried Israeli women who choose artificial insemination also benefit from a secular social climate in which the traditional stigma associated with out-of-wedlock births has ceased to retain its negative force. For most secular Israelis, sex outside marriage is relatively common, and the virtues of virginity enjoy little currency. The fact that a woman deliberately conceived a child out-of-wedlock is not a sign of promiscuity for these Israelis; it is a manifestation, perhaps desperate though certainly understandable, of the legitimate desire to have a child and become a mother.

In 1992 the Knesset explicitly recognized the economic hardships faced by single parents with the passage of the Single-Parent Families Law. The law subsidizes single parents in three main areas: housing, childcare, and tax exemptions. Single parents receive advantageous mortgage rates and rent supplements, reduced kindergarten fees and social security allowances (on top of the flat allowance that the government allocates to families with children), and tax exemptions for single-parent families and reductions in the municipal property tax on their apartments. In addition, since April 1994, single-parent families have received a discount in their payments to the National Health Funds. This support indicates that the state feels a responsibility toward the children being raised by single parents and exhibits an appreciation of the financial difficulties they face, be they single parents by choice or by circumstance. Moreover, state support for unmarried mothers could be understood to begin even before conception, for we have seen how access to reproductive technology is heavily subsidized by Israeli national health insurance funds, regardless of marital status. The funds cover all forms of technological treatment, from the relatively simple procedures related to artificial insemination — including blood tests, aids tests, ultrasounds, fertility monitoring, hormonal treatments, and doctors visits —to technologically advanced procedures such as IVF, micromanipulation, GIFT, ZIFT, and so forth.

These state policies, which not only recognize and support single parents but also subsidize the pursuit of single parenthood, contribute to the growing social acceptance of unmarried mothers, particularly within more secular Jewish communities in Israel. Indeed, as one thirty-nine-year-old unmarried woman told me, it is considered much worse to be a childless woman than it is to be an unmarried mother. She said: "My friends are encouraging me to get pregnant on my own. They told me I would be a great mother. They said that a husband I could always get, but children! To have children the time runs out. I should get pregnant now, while I can, and the husband will come later." Another woman I interviewed, an unmarried mother in Jerusalem, articulated a cogent explanation for this social acceptance:

Once a child is born in Israel it will always be accepted. The way a woman got pregnant isn't held against her; for example, if she is raped the child is still considered legitimate. There is no word for an illegitimate child in Hebrew. Once the child is born, the society accepts him. Israel is very lenient to single women. The society accepts the child because of Jewish culture. The nuclear family is difficult to circumvent psychologically, but not Halakhically. A single mother threatens that, but not terribly. The idea that children should be born is very strong in Israel.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Reproducing Jews by Susan Martha Kahn. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 "The time arrived but the father didn't": A New Continuum of Israeli Conception 9
2 Not Mamzers: The Legislation of Reproduction and the "Issue" of Unmarried Women 64
3 Jewish and Gentile Sperm: Rabbinic Discourse on Sperm and Paternal Relatedness 87
4 Eggs and Wombs: The Origins of Jewishness 112
5 Multiple Mothers: Surrogacy and the Location of Maternity 140
6 Consequences for Kinship 159
Conclusion: Reproducing Jews and Beyond 172
Appendixes 176
Notes 197
Bibliography 217
Index 223
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2005

    interesting book

    I am from Uganda I think this book is very interesting. It tells me how people can use technology over nature to make their race stronger. I wish the writer consider also the position of the poor Palestinian people.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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