The U.S. gay community scored a major victory last week with the Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Such a move is unlikely here in Israel, partly due to the fact that the community has placed a greater emphasis on parenting, and less on lobbying for marriage rights. This makes sense in a country that practically makes child-rearing a citizenship requirement.
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Though gay men are putting much of their time, money and emotion into fulfilling this duty, they are hardly being praised for it. Following the earthquakes in Nepal, and the subsequent rescue of Israeli babies born to local surrogate mothers, critics from various sectors of Israeli society unleashed especially vitriolic criticism of gay men who engage in fertility commerce. Statements by media figures such as Irit Linor and Keren Noibach, leaders of the LGBT community such as former Jerusalem Open House director Elinor Sidi and politicians such as Moshe Feglin and Merav Michaeli, left the public with the impression that gay men are the primary consumers of reproductive services that exploit (mostly third-world) women.
For most Israelis unable to gestate a child on their own, surrogacy, often coupled with sperm and egg donation, are the best — if not only — way to become parents. As a gay parent of twins born though this process, I am open to critical discussion about surrogacy but unwilling to disproportionally shoulder the blame for a national fertility program that is deeply flawed and unbalanced, and an international trade that is ethically questionable, especially when I represent a minority of those who use these services.
Israel’s desire to increase its Jewish population at any cost has created a tangle of legal and medical practices that are contradictory and often counterproductive. We spend more on IVF than any other country, yet rates of success are relatively low. Our adoption policies are antiquated; racially and religiously biased in such a way as to be practically ineffective. Co-parenting arrangements – where unmarried individuals create a child – are based on contracts that are essentially unenforceable, leaving the father vulnerable to the loss of custody rights. Surrogacy has been legal here for almost two decades, but is so limited – to a few heterosexual married couples – that most potential parents are forced to seek services outside our borders. There, in the hands of the private sector, both the providers (mostly poor women) and the purchasers of surrogacy services are exploited, with little real support from government at home or abroad.
Though people from all segments of society are involved in these activities, for women and non-gay couples, the process is often cheaper and involves almost no public judgment. At home in Israel, women are given almost endless, low-cost conception assistance, including anonymous sperm and egg donation. If they need a surrogate, they can first seek domestic arrangements, and if they must go abroad, they face little public scrutiny afterward – society turns a blind eye, as if they gestated their children on their own.
Gay men wishing to conceive — despite paying equally for state medical insurance — receive almost no local support and are forced to become customers of international surrogacy services. Afterward, they are vulnerable to censure and condemnation – because it's obvious that they didn't gestate children on their own.
Nepal was a prime example of this. Images of fathers holding newborns among Katmandu’s ruins suggested that those most involved in third-world surrogacy were gay men. Reports of defenseless surrogate mothers stranded in the streets while parents and babies were flown to safety, made us angry, especially at those fathers deemed responsible. Lost in the rubble, however, was the truth about who was really involved in this and most other cases of international surrogacy. As lawyer Victoria Gelfand notes, statistics show that two-thirds of Israelis who purchase the services of surrogates are women – either as part of heterosexual couples, or as single mothers. Some of the men we saw on the news were the partners of these women.
Surrogacy is a sensitive and risky venture, one that can easily become exploitative. As with all forms of medicine that depend on the bodies of others, it is fraught with ethical pitfalls. My husband and I had these concerns when we started the process, and purposely looked for a clinic that minimized damage to the surrogate and maximized our relationship with her.
When carefully regulated and supervised, surrogacy can be an effective answer to infertility if it causes little harm and maximum benefit to all concerned. By refusing to deal with the issue locally in a manner that is democratic and scrupulous, Israeli society is abandoning its own and other nations' most vulnerable citizens to a commerce that has few of the controls and core values we claim to espouse.
Israeli society, through its laws, medical practices and social service agencies, needs to become better at helping and regulating the creation of new life. Equitable adoption and co-parenting regulations, along with improved access to local egg/sperm donation and surrogacy, can lessen dependence on the international reproductive trade. Those who must leave the country for the service should be guided by stricter, more protective government involvement.
In the interim, we must stop blaming gay men for the problematic morality of surrogacy. As fully participating citizens of Israel we deserve the right to become parents with equal levels of guidance and support.
Avi Rose (PhD) is an educator, artist and psychologist. He lives in Jerusalem with his husband and their twin preschoolers.