Orthodox Jews confront dilemma over egg donors

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A fertility clinic in Nottingham is appealing for Jewish egg donors. The appeal, the first of its kind in Britain, raises difficult ethical questions for Orthodox Jews, who are likely to be worried about the origin of the eggs they receive.

The appeal has been prompted by the growing number of infertile Jewish women coming forward for treatment who refuse to accept non-Jewish eggs. Reform and Liberal Jews are less worried, since they take the view that a child raised in a Jewish womb will by definition become Jewish.

Dr Margaret Jacobi, a Liberal rabbi who is also a medical doctor, said yesterday: "As progressive Jews, we consider that babies adopted into Jewish families are Jewish, so egg donation would not be a problem for us."

But for some Orthodox women the problem is acute. For the Orthodox, Jewishness is transmitted only through biological mothers. It is not clear from traditional Jewish teaching whether a mother is the woman whose egg grows into a baby or the woman whose womb nourishes it, if the two roles are separated as they are in IVF.

Dr Simon Fishel, director of Nurture, the fertility unit at the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham, who is Jewish, said yesterday: "Women ask for Jewish sperm for insemination so why should they not want Jewish eggs? But it does raise some interesting issues. We are not talking about skin colour or racial features but about 'Jewishness' and what it is. Is it a race, or a community, or a feeling. There isn't a Jewish gene that we know about so why should it matter? But it does and I think it is something for the individual to decide. We are probably talking about dozens of women nationally.

"There are patients who are really suffering infertility - they see in the Bible the great commandment to go forth and multiply, and Rachel's cry to God, 'Give me a child else I die.'"

Some rabbis insist that the identity of the donor be known; and some also prohibit sisters giving eggs to each other, a prohibition which Dr Fishel finds incomprehensible.

But, he said, there was no general line, even among the Orthodox rabbinate. "Some rabbis will say that anonymous donation is frowned upon but not outlawed. Others will say it is both frowned upon and outlawed. But patients come from particular communities, each with one rabbi, and it is that rabbi's views which are decisive."

Eggs for women who cannot produce their own are scarce generally, particularly among ethnic minorities, and several clinics regularly appeal for Asian or Afro-Caribbean women to become donors. The women cannot be paid for supplying eggs - other than a small sum for expenses - so doctors rely on the altruism of fertile women. The procedure is time-consuming, painful, and poses a small risk to the health of the donor.

The Nurture appeal will initially focus on Jewish communities in Nottingham, Leicester and Sheffield and will be "proactive", Dr Fishel said. Posters and leaflets will be distributed throughout Jewish communities and staff from the fertility clinic will visit synagogues, women's groups, university groups, and surgeries.