Not many heterosexual people give too much thought to what using a donor to have children would be like. The use of a donor comes into the picture after experiencing infertility or receiving another diagnosis. For any one facing this decision, a lot of important questions to ask. For Jewish people, however, there is an addition question: is the child considered Jewish?
The answer is complicated. It depends on who you ask and how you ask The answer if a child is considered Jewish at birth used to be – if the mother is Jewish, the baby is Jewish. What now if there is a donor involved? And by donor, that could be of an egg (genetics) or a gestational carrier (some biology). Yet the mother practically speaking is based on intention, in other words, who is going to act as the mother for the child? So the question is which perspective is the Jewish perspective.
Generally speaking, Judaism leans more towards action than intention. In this regard, the act of creating a baby usually supersedes the intention. Donor sperm can be part of the equation too so this also applies to potential fathers.
In the traditionally stricter halakhic (Jewish law) communities, the ideal is that everyone involved is Jewish. In more progressive Jewish communities, it depends. Another issue in traditional communities is about being a Kohane or Levy (the priestly families that trace their back to the Temple priests). How is that observed if the donated gamete is a Kohane? What if the intentional parent is a Kohane? More questions!
The practice around adoption could be instructive in these cases, however, third party reproduction is almost like a “partial adoption.” Half of the genetics could be “adopted” and half not. Or all of the genetics are of the “parents,” but a third person was the gestational carrier – who traditionally determined the status.
Then there is the elephant in this room – conversion. The simplest way to resolve most issues is to have a conversion ceremony for the baby. However, that can trigger the deepest stigma at the heart of this. On top of experiencing infertility and then having to go through extraordinary measures to become a parent, some people might feel excluded or diminished with the thought that their child isn’t considered Jewish.
For some people, this will never come up. But for some people, they feel like the “other.” The assumptions in those questions are critical to really getting to the heart of the issue of Jews using donors. (Over) Simply stated, those questions assume that 1) being non-Jewish is not as good as being born Jewish, 2) conversion is not legitimate or a converted Jewish person is some how “less than” the rest of the Jewish people, and 3) this third party/donor makes your baby or your family “other.”
When its put that way, the questions of biology, genetics and intention are somewhat secondary to thinking about what it means to be Jewish. What does it mean to be a part of the Jewish community? Specifically, what does it mean, or how does one become Jewish?
While seas of ink have been spilled about what make someone Jewish, there are three main ways to simply it. Judaism is an ethnicity with cultural norms and traditions and you may follow them. Judaism is a religion and if you cast your lot with the rest of them, you’re in. Judaism is also a nationality or a people that one is born into. The catch is that Judaism is not just one of those, it is all three of those at once.
Anyone could participate in Jewish cultural activities or believe in Jewish teachings. That doesn’t make them Jewish. The link is people-hood or nationality. Looking at a comparison is helpful. If two people from America (nationality) give birth to a child in Spain, the child is actually Spanish. But the parents are Americans! What about a child born in the US to Spanish parents? The child is American. Could they acquire American and Spanish citizenship? Quite easily, but only with some paperwork. Nationality is part of birth. Is either child “less” American? The question highlights the stigma; the answer is an opinion. However, in every situation, paperwork will be needed to affirm or naturalize the child as a citizen.
The paperwork is the details. The big picture reality is that the baby is deeply wanted in the Jewish community. It happened to be born in Spain so that switch needs to be made to make it official. This is not to belittle conversion as mere paperwork or meaningless; it is meaningful! Conversion links a soul to a chain, binds it into a covenant, welcomes it into a holy community. And it comes with paperwork.
One last note on the assumption of “other” that triggers some people. In life, you won’t always fit in with all people or groups. However, Meaning is not derived from fitting in and being like everyone else. Love, connection and meaning come from belonging. Conversion is not to make a baby fit in. It is a commitment to a life of belonging.
Maybe there will be a donor egg or sperm, or a gestational carrier involved with building your family. Do what is right for you to become a parent. There will be paperwork with any of those options medically, legally, psychologically and possibly Jewishly. You can manage those details and logistics. The big picture is building your Jewish family. And no matter how your Jewish family came into being, you will belong.