Traditional Sources on Artificial Insemination

Four texts dealing with non-traditional forms of insemination may--or may not--serve as meaningful precedents for the contemporary debate.

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On this basis, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum rules that donor insemination is biblically prohibited, for as with adultery, the identity of the biological father (in this case, the donor) is usually unknown. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg goes even further: he uses Nahmanides' interpretation as forbidding the very act of injecting a donor's semen into a married woman's womb as an act of adultery, regardless of the absence of sexual contact involved.

Problems With These Precedents

I maintain, as a matter of general policy, that we should use the precedents within our tradition to guide us in our own rulings as much as possible, even when such sources are scant in number and considerably different in context from the questions we are asking, as long as we keep in mind the ways in which these sources differ in a relevant way from the case at hand as we weigh such precedents and draw conclusions from them. Even Rabbi Teitelbaum, however, acknowledges a problem in basing his opinion on the commentary of Nahmanides, for it is debatable whether biblical commentaries were ever intended to be sources of law.

Moreover, current infertility treatments differ from all four of the above sources in two significant ways. First, when these modern techniques are used, all parties involved intend conception to take place; and second, the probability of conception is considerably greater than it is in the situations described by the above four sources, where it occurs by sheer happenstance.

In fact, these sources are so unlike the contemporary conditions in which the question of the permissibility of artificial insemi­nation arises that one wonders whether they can seriously serve as a legal resource for our questions.

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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.