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The Knesset yesterday approved a revolutionary approach to the fertilization of human eggs on behalf of childless couples. Due to go into effect in nine months' time, the so-called "ova law" will allow young women in Israel to donate an ovum to couples who suffer from fertility problems, in return for payment - thus putting an end to the lucrative business of ova donations from abroad that has generated millions of shekels in the past few years.

The law had been held up in the government and Knesset for years, but finally passed its second and third readings yesterday.

According to the new law, healthy Israeli women aged between 20 and 35 will be able to donate an ovum and receive compensation. The amount, to be set in the near future, is expected to be approximately NIS 6,000. This is higher than that paid for a sperm donation, since a woman who donates an ovum is required to undergo prior hormonal treatment and the egg is extracted under general anaesthetization. Donors will be permitted to donate ova three times, given to no more than three women with fertility problems.

The law stipulates that women aged between 18 and 54 who suffer from fertility problems can request an ovum donation, and it will be paid for through the health basket. The donation of ova is defined by the law as being anonymous, and the resulting baby is considered the child of the recipient from the legal point of view.

A confidential databank will be set up and managed by an adoptions registrar, and at the age of 18, anyone who wishes to know if he was born from an ovum donation will be informed. However, he will not be told the identity of his biological mother, the donor. Couples who wish to marry, when one of the partners was born from a donated ovum, will be able to check with the registrar whether there is a genetic family connection between them. The databank will make it possible to match the donor's and recipient's religion, as well as to confirm that there is no family connection between the donor, recipient and genetic father.

In certain cases, the law will permit an ovum donation that is not anonymous from a donor who has designated her ova solely to a specific recipient. The law will forbid the hormonal treatments that are currently given in Israel to healthy women who wish to donate ova abroad.

Until now, an ovum donation was permitted only from women who underwent fertilization treatments as a result of medical necessity, and only on condition that the eggs were donated without payment, on an altruistic and anonymous basis. The number of donations in the past few years is estimated at a few hundred. Most of the women requiring an ovum donation were therefore forced to go abroad. An estimated 250 Israeli women travel abroad every month for an ovum donation, which costs some NIS 20,000 to NIS 30,000 per treatment. The treatments usually take place in the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Romania, Cyprus, Spain, India and South Africa.

Chairman of the Knesset's Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, MK Haim Katz, said: "This is yet another draft law that the committee has brought to fruition after more than 10 years of exhaustive debate that left numerous families frustrated and helpless. I have no doubt that this is one of the most important laws in the sphere of health that the committee has discussed during this Knesset's term."

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman agreed to support the law after receiving the approval of senior rabbinical figures and an amendment was introduced that makes it possible to identify the religion of an ovum donor, as well as a clause that stipulates the need for a baby born from the egg of a non-Jewish donor to undergo conversion. The law obliges the religion of the donor and the recipient to be matched since, in Judaism, the religion of a newborn baby is determined by his mother's religion. In future, a baby born to a Jewish family from a non-Jewish donor will have to undergo conversion.

Public pressure for accelerating the law's approval grew last summer when police in Romania raided the Sabyc fertility clinic in Bucharest, which was operated by Israeli doctors on behalf of Israeli women wishing to receive an ovum donation.

Since 2000, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of Israeli ova donations following the opening of a police investigation against doctors charged with harvesting exaggerated quantities of ova from women, without their permission. The senior gynecologist accused in this affair, Prof. Zion Ben-Rafael, was last year given back the medical license revoked from him in March 2007 for two and a half years, as part of a plea bargain arrangement.

In-vitro fertilization units in Israel's hospitals will begin making arrangements for the new directives within the next two months, according to instructions to be issued by the Health Ministry.