Artificial Insemination in Jewish Law

Most rabbis permit artificial insemination using the husband's semen, but donor insemination raises more complicated questions.

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"The very essence of this matter‑-namely, placing in the womb of a married woman the seed of another man‑-is a great abomination of the tent of Jacob, and there is no greater profanation of the family than this in the dwelling places of Israel. This destroys all the sublime concepts of purity and holiness of Jewish family life, for which our people has been so noted since it became a nation."

This, in my view, misreads the prohibition against adultery. […]

Adultery is repugnant primarily because it violates the trust between husband and wife that must be the foundation of their relationship. The woman has "cheated" on her husband, or vice versa. In standard cases of artificial insemination by a donor, however, the husband not only knows about the insemination but deeply wants it so that he and his wife can have children. Contrary to Rabbi Waldenberg, then, artificial insemination by a donor is not an "abomination" or "profanation" that destroys all Jewish concepts of holiness and purity but rather a desperate attempt to have children‑-an undisputed good in marital relationships for the Jewish tradition‑-in a context of mutual openness and trust. […]

DI: Unintentional Incest

If the identity of the donor is known, the people born through his sperm donation can and should avoid mating with his offspring through marriage so as to avoid incest, for their common father makes them, after all, half-brothers and half-sisters.

Usually, though, the donor is anonymous, and that raises the possibility of unintentional incest in the next generation. That is, the person produced by artificial insemination might happen to marry one of the children of the donor and his wife, and since the children share a father, they would each be marrying their biological half sibling. Both members of the couple and their families would be completely unaware that the relationship was incestuous, for just as recipients do not generally know the identity of the donors whose sperm they use, so, too, donors do not know the identity of the recipients.

If the donor has not been identified but it is known that he is not Jewish, sexual intercourse between the people born through his sperm donation and those born through his marriage would not technically constitute a violation of Judaism's laws prohibiting incest, even if the non‑Jewish donor's wife is Jewish and thus his children are Jewish, for Jewish law does not recognize family lineage among non‑Jews through the father's line.

On that basis, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein permitted DI if the donor was not Jewish, although he was later pressured to withdraw his responsum. […]

DI: The Identity of the Father

The identity of the father is potentially an issue in four matters [in Jewish law]: the child's Jewish identity, priestly status, inheritance rights, and the father's duty to procreate. The first three of those are, in most cases, fairly easily resolved, but the last is more troublesome.

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Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is Rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in California.