Single Motherhood and Artificial Insemination

Despite some legal and ethical concerns, single women should not be prohibited from becoming pregnant with donor sperm.

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Reprinted with permission from The Canadian Jewish News (February 4, 1999).

Many single women in their late 30s and early 40s are concerned about whether they will be able to find the right person to marry while they can still have children of their own. It is under these conditions that a new question is coming to the forefront: Is it ethical for a single woman to become pregnant via artificial insemination?

[I have written this article] based in part on a thorough and passionate article by Dvora Ross in the recently published volume Jewish Legal Writings By Women.

Jewish Legal Concerns

One objection relates to anonymous donor sperm. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 9:51:4) notes that it is forbidden for a woman to remarry for three months subsequent to being divorced or widowed because we may not know who the father is (Shulhan Arukh EH 13:1), and a clear genealogy is extremely important (Yevamot 42b).

In addition, there is a concern that the child of an anonymous donor may someday meet and marry a brother or sister, unaware that they are siblings. Based on these rules, Rabbi Waldenberg forbids the use of anonymous donor sperm.
artificial insemination
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe EH 2:11) dismisses this comparison. He notes that the three-month waiting period between marriages is because the child may mistakenly think the second husband is the father, while in reality it is the first husband. However, in the case of a sperm donor, the child is aware that the father is anonymous. Rabbi Feinstein also says [that] the possibility a child of an anonymous sperm donor will unwittingly marry a sibling is statistically remote.

According to all opinions, this problem can be solved by using the sperm of a non-Jewish donor, or by obtaining the identity of the donor before the child marries.

Extra-Legal Concerns

Outside of the issue of an anonymous donor, there are no halakhic concerns. In fact, Rabbi Y.Y. Weinberg (Seridei Eish 3:5) says that it is permissible for a single woman to use donor sperm to become pregnant. However, others object to this on ethical grounds. One objection is that the mother and child may be targets of slander, because even a pious, chaste single woman will be accused of promiscuity when she becomes pregnant.
One has a responsibility to avoid even the appearance of scandal. As it says in Proverbs 4:24: "Remove from yourself an untrue mouth, and distance yourself from crooked lips." Because of this concern Shlomo Zalman Auerbach argues that it is forbidden for a single woman to have a child through artificial insemination (Nishmat Avraham IV, page 181).

One could argue that this concern could be answered. The mother could publicize that she intends to have a child via artificial insemination. Once the artificial insemination of single women becomes more common, this would no longer be a concern.

Another objection is based on the needs of the child. Rabbi David Golinkin writes that some studies show that children of single-parent families are psychologically disadvantaged. However, [Dvora] Ross points out that these studies take place in situations of family trauma such as divorce or death. These conclusions may not be true for women who are single mothers by choice.

In addition, in all families there are many other factors (parental age, economic status, living grandparents) that can affect the psychological happiness of future children. Would that mean that only those who will have children in an ideal family situation are allowed to do so?

One serious objection is concerned with public policy. If we accept single mothers by artificial insemination, we make single motherhood respectable. This will weaken the social strictures against having children out of wedlock. This in turn will weaken the institution of marriage. However, this problem can be dealt with by creating guidelines for single motherhood by donors, limiting artificial insemination to women in their mid-to-late 30s who are concerned that they will not marry in time to have children.

In these individual situations it will be recognized as a decision made in a case of need, not the acceptance of an alternate lifestyle that rejects marriage.

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Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is rabbi of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal, Canada.