Babies behind bars: A Palestinian fertility doctor has become an unlikely hero by helping women conceive – even though their husbands are in jail

  • @AlistairDawber

Lydia and her husband were childhood sweethearts and in August they will have their second baby. It will be a boy, the doctors say, and the happy couple will call him Majd. A beaming Lydia is clearly delighted.

A normal story repeated anywhere in the world perhaps, but what is special about Lydia is that her husband is 12 years into a 25-year prison sentence in an Israeli jail.

There are certainly no conjugal visits for Palestinian security prisoners, who the Israelis consider to be terrorists. Instead, Lydia – whose first child was born before her husband was jailed for being a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade during the second Intifada – is one of a growing number of women who has smuggled a sample of her husband’s sperm out of prison and taken it to the Nablus clinic of Dr Salem Abu Khaizaran, an unassuming fertility expert who is quickly becoming a Palestinian national hero, especially among the territories’ women.

In the office of his private IVF clinic, Dr Khaizaran, pictured right, explains how Lydia’s pregnancy, and that of nine other women, came about –so far the programme has produced one baby, a boy called Mohammed, who last August was born to the wife of another long-term Palestinian prisoner.

“We have had more than 800,000 people in and out prison since 1967. Do you know what that means for a population of 4 million? That means every one of us has spent part of his life in prison, and if not himself then his brother, or his neighbour. It’s a highly emotional issue for the Palestinian people.

“The women here are loyal and want to stand by their husbands, but by the time the men are out of prison, many of these women will be too old to have children. When the man eventually leaves prison, there can be a lot of pressure on him to remarry to have children with a younger wife – and of course, leave his loyal wife. There are certainly cases in which this has happened.”

Palestinian security prisoners held in Israeli prisons are considered by many in the Occupied Territories to be national pin-ups – their release is one of the leading Palestinian causes and many politicians including the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, have suggested that an agreement on the release of prisoners could be a pre-condition to any renewed peace talks with the Israelis.

Dr Khaizaran is determinedly non-partisan however, and despite pictures on the clinic wall of himself with the Mr Abbas, and his predecessor Yasser Arafat, the formerly British-based doctor insists that his thoughts are firmly with the welfare of the women who come to see him.

“One of our concerns was that while we can perform the procedure – it’s a simple procedure – we also needed the agreement of the religious leaders; that it fits with the teachings of Islamic law – it does. We also have political support. But the main worry was the community – we thought we may do harm than good. Instead, what we have found is that people are telling the women, ‘Why the hell have you not done this already?’ What we want to do is help the women.”

Dr Khaizaran is coy about how the women smuggle the samples out. “They have their own way,” he insists. “I am a doctor, I’m not involved in how they get the samples out. I’d prefer not to know.” A request for comment from the Israeli prisons authority was ignored.

But Dr Khaizaran is a stickler for proper protocol. Palestinian society can be notoriously conservative and the sudden appearance of a pregnant woman in a village, where everyone knows her husband is serving a long prison sentence, is potentially devastating.

He insists on two first-degree relatives from both the woman’s and her husband’s family to accompany her to the clinic, and to authenticate that the sample is from her husband.

There are at least 67 frozen samples in Dr Khaizaran’s clinic – and while he charges as much as $2,000 a time for couples who are struggling to conceive, he offers the treatment free for the wives of long-term prisoners.

All Lydia really cares about is her new baby boy. “When my husband is released from prison, we’ll both be around 50, so we were worried that it would be difficult for us to have more babies. In August, I was on my way to work – I heard an interview with the mother of Mohammed, where she described her experience. I burst into tears. I visited my husband in prison and told him that I wanted to do the same,” she says.

“I went to him and got the sample. There are six witnesses – three from my family and three from his. Each of the prisoners and their wives have conceived of their own idea of how to smuggle out the samples, but I don’t want to go into details of how we did – we did it twice. The first sample didn’t work, but a fortnight later, we smuggled out a second, and now I’m pregnant.”

As well as the risk of being caught, the couples also understand that with publicity there are likely to be consequences for the men behind bars. Another cost is that Lydia, now six months pregnant, has not visited her husband since she received the second sample, out of fear that that the prison guards will punish him when they see his clearly pregnant wife. “My daughter goes to visit him now, but when the baby is born, I’ll take Madj to see his father,” she says.

Lydia has become a celebrity in her own village. Her husband is considered a hero, and unusually, the couple met and fell in love at school – theirs was not an arranged marriage like many others in her community. She also accepts that getting pregnant makes her a symbol for the Palestinian cause. “In spite of the prison, the guards, the occupation, we continue our lives – but so far the success rate is small, and our husbands may face integration in prison,” she says.

In the past Palestinian prisoners have been offered the chance, once a year, for conjugal visits, she says, but many of the wives were concerned that cameras would be placed in the rooms and the film disseminated afterwards. Whether or not this was ever a real risk cannot be known, but since then prisoners have complained that the lack of intimacy is a further punishment and that the rules are not applied consistently. After all, they argue, Yigal Amir, the killer of the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has started a family from a high-security prison, despite his crime.

The sort of world Madj will inherit will depend on the politicians and the diplomats. But his birth will not only represent a small victory for the Palestinian prisoners and the doctors like Dr Khaizaran, it is also a triumph for Lydia’s persistence and determination. “I’m very proud of myself,” she says.