Theology and bioethics: is posthumous reproduction okay?

Theology and bioethics: is posthumous reproduction okay?
In matters of life and death, religious doctrine often plays a considerable role in the formation of an individual’s ethical agenda. When it comes to modern medicine, there are often concerns that medical intervention in reproduction violates the will of God. As modern biomedical science has broken through previous technological restrictions in assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as in vitro fertilisation-embryo transfer (IVF), artificial insemination by donor (AID), it is up to religious authorities to establish an official position as guidance for their adherents.More recently, posthumous reproduction, which involves in vitro fertilisation of a woman using sperm collected from her deceased husband or partner, has attracted fierce debate in the wider religious community.While Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims reject the use of IVF-embryo transfer, surrogate motherhood and cryopreservation of embryos (slow freezing and storage, usually for later use), the opposite is true for Jews.

Israel takes the lead in world research and development of reproductive technologies and has the highest number of fertility clinics per capita in the world. Israeli women are also the highest per capita users of the procedure. Married couples and single Jewish women are allowed up to two live children by IVF, free of charge, in accordance with Israeli law and Halakha (Jewish law). In 2010, 4.1 percent of all Israeli births were derived from IVF.

Where does Israel’s pro-natalist ethos begin?

God’s first commandment to Adam to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ is a good approximation to modern Israel’s perspectives on reproduction and assisted reproduction. In 1948, the first Prime Minister awarded a prize of 100 lira and signed letter to every woman on the birth of her 10th child. All this was ostentatiously done in hopes to create a ‘childbirth regime’ after widespread annihilation of Jews in the Holocaust. The multi-ethnic make-up of the Israeli population (25% non-Jewish Arabs, the growth of which could be a threat to the Jewish state and security), its modern history and an emphasis on family integrity makes it a national objective to grow the Jewish population.

Predating artificial insemination technology, partial surrogacy was practiced in biblical times. In Genesis 16 Sarah, wife of Abraham, was childless and had a maid bear Abraham a son before being miraculously cured of her infertility. Other stories in the Old Testament serve as a guiding example for Jewish clergy in relation to infertility.

The right to posthumous reproduction was passed in 2003 and is also supported by Halakha. Based on the importance of marriage in Jewish life, assumptions of a loving relationship are used to condone the use of a man’s sperm by his wife to have his genetic child after his death (even without prior consent). The procedure finds roots in the discontinued practice of wedding a man to his brother’s widow, then the most feasible way of producing a dead man’s heir.

It is important to note that while the sperm of a dead man can be used to fertilise his wife, halakhically the frozen embryos of a dead woman is forbidden from being used to produce the man’s genetic heir, as this would involve a third party, the surrogate mother.

Even so, in 2011 the parents of a 27 year old dead Israeli man, Ohad Ben-Yaakov applied for legal permission to use his frozen sperm to produce a grand child. The man was not married or in a relationship, and they would have had to find a willing, single mother who would raise their grandchild. Their lawyer Rosenblum said, ‘It’s an idea of continuation. It’s a dream. It’s magic.’ Cases like these take Israel’s pro-life attitudes to the extreme, signaling an ever-progressive national and global debate on the ethics of posthumous reproduction. The ‘dream’ of postmortem parenthood would shift the odds in favour of life away from the finality of death.

God’s directions to Adam ‘to work the garden and to preserve it’ (Genesis 2) are sometimes interpreted as an order to improve upon the human creation and to meet its needs, which justifies Jewish tolerance in regards to reproductive ethics. The needs of a mother to survive therefore supersede the unborn life of a fetus, making abortion permissible in circumstances where bringing the pregnancy to full term would endanger the mother’s life. Indeed, in Halakha the pre-embryo that is younger than forty days old from conception is described as ‘mere water’.

Religious institutions offer an ethical dimension to the assisted reproductive technology debate. These moral and in many ways primordial dilemmas are often buried in society, where parallel discussions focus mostly on the parentage and inheritance rights of children born via assisted reproductive technology.



  1. Theology and bioethics: is posthumous reproduction O.K.? « thehummingplace - [...] The full version of a much-condensed story originally published on Vibewire here. [...]
  2. Theology and bioethics: is posthumous reproduction O.K.? | Christine Chats With Strangers - [...] published on Vibewire (condensed version) here, Feb 2013. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like Loading... Tags: ART, bioethics, christianity, [...]

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