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Artificial Insemination

ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION. Following earlier experiments on animals, the first human baby produced through artificial insemination on humans was born in the United States in 1866. Since then, particularly in recent decades, tens of thousands of children have been conceived artificially by a physician injecting the husband's or, more usually, a donor's semen into the mother's tract. Such operations are now commonplace, though mostly clandestine, in many countries, including Israel. They raise grave moral, religious, and legal problems. According to the preponderance of Christian teaching and of Western legislation as currently interpreted by the courts, a married woman's recourse to artificial insemination by donor constitutes adultery and any offspring so produced is illegitimate.

A major principle determining the attitude of a Jewish law is enshrined in a talmudic passage which is by far the first literary reference to the feasibility of an impregnation without any physical contact between the parents – a possibility evidently unknown to the Greeks or other nations of antiquity. Discussing the biblical law requiring a high priest to marry a virgin (Lev. 21:13), a third-century sage asked whether a pregnant virgin would be qualified for such a marriage, the pregnancy being explained as due to an accidental impregnation after she bathed in water previously fertilized by a male. The question is answered affirmatively (Ḥag. 15a). This indicates that a conception sine concubito does not compromise a woman's legal status as a virgin. Several medieval sources further imply that no bastardy (mamzerut) attaches to children born in this way of parents who, had they had normal relations with each other, would have committed adultery or incest (Alfa Beta de-Ben Sira, in J.D. Eisenstein (ed.), Oẓar Midrashim (1915), 43; and R. Perez of Corbeil, Haggahot Semak, see Turei Zahav on YD, 195:7). These references are so singular that one of them was quoted as "a legend of the rabbis" by the 16th-century physician *Amatus Lusitanus to clear a nun who had miscarried from the suspicion of fornication.

Following these precedents, virtually all rabbinic rulings on artificial insemination by a donor have refused to brand the act as adultery or the product as a bastard ( *mamzer ), with the notable exception of the very first responsum on the subject dated 1930 (J.L. Zirelsohn, Ma'arekhei Lev (1932), no. 73). Nevertheless, rabbinic opinion utterly condemns the practice, mainly on moral rather than purely legal grounds. The Jewish conscience, it is emphasized in numerous responsa, recoils in horror from reducing human generation to such artificiality, arbitrariness, and public deceit, from placing into doubt the paternity of children (those conceived by artificial insemination being fraudulently registered in their putative fathers' names, thus investing all paternity claims with some uncertainty), from the resultant risk of incestuous marriages between blood-relations (conceived by a common donor) unknown to each other, from depriving fathers (i.e., the donors) and their natural children of their mutual rights and duties (e.g., maintenance, honor, inheritance), and from many other abuses which would inevitably become rampant.

On artificial insemination from the husband, usually indicated when some impediment in the wife renders a conception by the natural act impossible, most rabbinic authorities adopt a more lenient view, permitting the practice under certain conditions if the duty of procreation cannot otherwise be fulfilled.

The more recent issues of surrogacy and cloning present more complex problems that rabbinic thought is just beginning to contend with.


I. Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (19663), 244–50; idem, Journal of a Rabbi (19672), 162–3; idem, in: Essays… I. Brodie (1967), 191–2; Oẓar ha-Posekim, Even ha-Ezer, 1 (1947), 11–12; M.S. Kasher (ed.), in: No'am, 1 (1958), 111–66; 6 (1963), 295–9; 10 (1967), 57–103, 314ff.; A. Joel, in: Hebrew Medical Journal, 26 pt. 2 (1953), 190ff.

[Immanuel Jakobovits]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.