Recently, as more legislation has been discussed in areas like New York and New Hampshire on surrogacy, aspects of religion and working with a surrogate have arisen. We spoke with one of our surrogacy experts, Deb Levy, MA, LPC Surrogacy Expert with ConceiveAbilities.
Deb is a Licensed Counselor and Marriage and Family Counselor and has several unique perspectives on the fertility industry. She has published research and spoken widely on third-party reproduction, as well as served on various committees within the Mental Health Professionals Group of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and served on the Path2Parenthood board.
She also often shares her own personal journey as a Conservative Jewish woman who partnered with a surrogate with those she counsels. Below, she discusses how she felt reconciling her own religious background and working with a surrogate.
As the surrogacy expert for ConceiveAbilities, a therapist, a former fertility patient, and a Conservative Jew, I’ve frequently been asked the question, “How do I follow the laws of Judaism and work with a surrogate?” I understand the question. To describe why this is such a conflict, you need to understand two things; the stress that comes with infertility and the realities of the surrogate industry.
In the early 2000’s I was faced with infertility. I was in my early thirties, so I thought fertility treatment would be a slam dunk. If I paid all this money for IVF, there was no way it wouldn’t work. I was wrong, dead wrong. I spent years trying to conceive, and IVF, after IVF turned up negative. To say I was devastated would be an understatement.
In my professional life, I’ve frequently spoken about the stress that comes with infertility and described my experience as a feeling like I was drowning; swallowing more and more water and hoping, praying, and begging for a life preserver. If my doctor would have told me to whistle while jumping on one foot, I would have done it in hopes of conceiving. Having a family wasn’t just important to me, it was and is an important part of Judaism, which makes the pressure even greater. “It’s the greatest mitzvah” (good deed), my grandmother used to say.
After years of unsuccessful IVF cycles, my doctor said to me, “I’m confident that I can help you have a baby, but I don’t think I can get you pregnant.”
“What are the options?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“Surrogacy or adoption,” the doctor explained.
After my head stopped spinning, and several conversations later, my (then) husband and I discussed our options, and ultimately felt that surrogacy was the route for us as I wanted to be involved throughout the entire pregnancy. I wanted to be a part of all of the “firsts.” We felt compelled to consult not only our doctor, but our Rabbi.
Judaism follows a maternal lineage, so the question of “Who is the mother?” is a very important question. The Rabbi indicated that Halachic (Judaic law) states that the woman who gives birth to the baby is the mother. There are obviously several interpretations based on your religious perspective. I asked if that implied that my surrogate needed to be Jewish?
In those days there weren’t many agencies to choose from, and we vetted the few that there were. After five ill-screened surrogates were presented, one finally met my doctor’s criteria. With every surrogate that I was presented I became so excited I couldn’t contain myself and yelled to anyone that would listen that I was matched! Then the depression hit me when, for one reason or another, the surrogate didn’t work out. I was beyond devastated. The fertility world had become my unofficial full-time job, but I tried not to make it my identity.
Ultimately, we were matched with a lovely woman named Carey, and conceived my son Zac on the first try. Carey was not Jewish, but very special to our entire family. The waiting room at the delivery was full of 8 first time grandparents, and a very special great aunt and uncle (I’m telling you the whole mishpacha!) who were there to greet Zac and celebrate!
Working in reproductive medicine for close to the past 20 years I see other Jewish clients struggle with this decision. There are no easy answers. If we lined up five Rabbis, we would probably get five different answers. What I can tell you, is the reality of the fertility industry. Jewish donors and surrogates are scarce. I’ve frequently said, when you decide you're ready to have a baby, you want to have a baby yesterday. Fertility treatments have already delayed those plans. Any further delays can come with huge consequences, such as the biological clock ticking for the final time, or feeling too old to have children. I personally chose a non-Jewish surrogate because waiting for someone that was Jewish would have both jeopardized my ability to use my eggs, and more importantly deprive me from being a member of the club that I so wanted to join. Motherhood. You need to decide what is right for you.
If you are an intended parent looking to find a surrogate or to learn more, please contact us! We are here to guide you through this journey!
All Things Conceivable is a blog dedicated to sharing the knowledge and expert opinions of the dedicated team at ConceiveAbilities, a Chicago-based egg donation and surrogacy agency.