One of the cartoons going around during the pre-Passover coronavirus outbreak was of an Orthodox woman in the year 2050 shopping for Passover with a mask and gloves saying: “this is the way my bubby shopped for Passover, so this is the way I will!” Sadly, this logic is a common reality for Orthodox couples going through fertility treatments. Despite the fact that most non-Hasidic authorities on Jewish law believing “supervision” is not required, it is widely believed to be. This mistake has its price.
While writing on this topic (see articles with halachic information here and here), I had contacted several prominent Orthodox rabbis asking for their perspective on supervision in fertility treatments. While many maintained that supervision in fertility treatments is unnecessary, the common approach was “why not?” which makes a lot of sense. If one can easily add a level of safety and certainty, there is no reason not to. Any measure, halachic, or not, adding safeguards can be a good thing, the question is, is it a requirment or not? Is it religious or not?
When presented with the downsides of supervision which include violations of the couple’s privacy, limiting treatment options and clinics, this rabbi and others agreed that supervision does not need to be pursued in the first place. With the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, there are now several other real risks both to supervisors and others in making supervision a requirement.
Sometime later, I ran into this same rabbi who told me with a sigh of relief:” I am so thankful you had drawn my attention to this matter. I was counseling a couple on this issue. They had told me they were planning on forgoing a cycle of treatment because they would not be able to get supervision during a Jewish holiday. I immediately told them there was no need for supervision in the first place”.
Allowing for supervision during fertility treatments to become an Orthodox norm will not be a victimless move. Sadly, the victims of this prevalence will be silent, vulnerable, and may lose their very last chance to conceive a child, due to unnecessary logistics. We cannot let this happen. Sadly, it is. The way this non-halacha is being mainstreamed is by conflating sensational journalism with Jewish law.
Those promoting the case for supervision of fertility treatments will cite heartbreaking viral stories about IVF mismatches, which are indeed devastating. The problem with that is A. this is not a halachic argument; B. it is statistically insignificant. There are more baby mixups in delivery rooms and babies switched at birth than IVF mix-ups. Last I had heard, there are no halachic supervisors in maternity wards making sure that no one is switching up babies.
Combining halachic supervision with riveting sensational media is, in my mind, anything between epistemological negligence and cynical misjudgment. I have a great deal of respect for those in the Hassidic community who follow the guidelines of their rabbis, which do require halachic supervision for halachic reasons, they are following their communal guidelines. I am troubled, though with others try and expand that practice beyond where it is needed.
This is why I had mixed feelings when reading Amy Klein’s article in Tablet titled “Koshering Your IVF Embryo”. While I was deeply moved by the story of heroes like Esther Friedman and other Mashgichot who go and make sure members of their communities feel comfortable pursuing fertility treatments, the article furthers the mistaken notion that there is some kind of halachic obligation emanating from mixups commonly taking place in labs.
The article states that: “many Orthodox rabbis require people utilizing in vitro fertilization (IVF) to have a designated Jewish supervisor present in the laboratory every time a gamete (sperm, eggs, embryo) is handled.” It does not qualify if this the majority of Orthodox rabbis, nor does it explain that it is, for the most part, Hassidic rabbis.
Sadly, this kind of misinformation is what causes many Orthodox couples to limit their treatment options, violate their privacy in their most vulnerable time, or to incur massive expenses and travel to make sure they comply with this “requirement,”
I was reminded of the time I spoke to someone advocating for requiring halachic supervision in all fertility treatments. When asked what the source for this “requirement” might be, they leaped forward with passion and told me they would send me the source shortly. My heart sunk when they sent me a Time Magazine article with a heartbreaking story about an IVF mixup that took place in….the 1960s.
As someone who had studied in yeshiva for many years and had been rabbinically ordained, I expected concrete halachic sources, but instead was getting Wikipedia level information.
About a year later, I saw another heartbreaking viral story about a New York couple who had their embryos switched in an LA clinic with a devastating aftermath. They were being peddled around as the justification for halachic supervision of fertility treatments. Using these stories to require “halachic” supervision is an aberration to anyone familiar with statistics and/or Jewish law. Orthodox communities must be very clear in the standards we set: there is either a halachic obligation emanating for Jewish law or a practical concern emanating from the reality on the ground, requiring a realistic solution. We cannot distort Jewish law and practice in any way, how so much more so at the expense of those in their most vulnerable moments.
It is important to note that even according to those who do require halachic supervision on fertility treatments, if someone did not have that supervision, the child is “kosher.” If there is any concern that there was a mixup, it can be easily solved by going to the closest pharmacy and getting a $15 DNA test. Jewish children are not dishes, sushi, or shwarma. They do not need to be “koshered.”
May all those awaiting the blessing of a child, be blessed with it speedily and easily. May God bless all the amazing mashgichot who answer the call of their communities and make sure that couples feel more comfortable and meet their community standards going through this difficult process, and may we be blessed with the words the Kohen Gadol would pray while standing in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur asking for: “a year in which no woman will suffer a miscarriage, a year in which Your people Yisrael will not be in need of one another’s [help], nor the help of any other people.” Amen.