Israel's Rabbis to Debate 'Jewishness' of Three-parent Babies Conceived Through New Fertility Treatment

Is a baby still Jewish if one of its two biological mothers is not?

According to Jewish religious law, a baby is Jewish if his or her mother is Jewish, regardless of whether or not the father is.

But what happens if the baby has three biological parents, including two biological mothers – one Jewish and one not? It sounds like a hypothetical question, but it may not be for long. Dr. Ilya Barr, founder of the Fertility Medical Center in Israel, notes that a new fertility treatment, now undergoing advanced clinical trials in the United Kingdom, uses parts of an egg from two different women.

“To prepare the groundwork, we decided to forward a question to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and get their opinion on the matter,” said Barr.

The procedure is known as cytoplasmic transfer, and it is meant to help women with problems conceiving who would like their own genes to be passed down to their children. It involves injecting a small amount of cytoplasm (yoke) from a donor egg into the patient’s egg and then fertilizing the revamped cell with sperm from the father.

This is different from a standard egg donation, in which a complete egg is donated, and in which case the baby receives its DNA from the donor mother rather than the recipient mother. Most Israeli women who use egg donations to conceive receive them from women abroad, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, these donors are not Jewish.

When the donor mother is not Jewish, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate does not consider the baby Jewish either until it has undergone a proper conversion.

Barr said he has not heard back yet from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and doesn’t expect to for a while. Still, he said, he is optimistic that children born through cytoplasmic transfers in Israel may not have to convert since they will be inheriting the DNA of their Jewish mothers. “You never know how they’ll rule, though, and that’s why I thought it was important to get the question out there already,” he said.

Although the donor mother’s DNA is not meant to be injected into the recipient mother’s egg during cytoplasmic transfer, sometimes it is unavoidable, noted Barr. Because that possibility exists, he speculated, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate might insist on conversions as a precautionary measure.

Barr estimated that it could take several years until the treatment was approved. The procedure was first tried experimentally in 1997, and since then, a number of babies have been born using it, though not in Israel.

Many recipients of donor eggs in Israel, particularly non-Orthodox couples, don’t bother reporting to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate that their children carry genes from non-Jewish women and thereby avoid having them go through conversions.