Recently it came to my attention, by way of a Sydney-based Jewish gay mailing list, that an observant Orthodox Jewish couple (married and nominally heterosexual) were unable to conceive conventionally due to a medical condition. However they were advised that conception could be achieved with the assistance of a donated egg.
To accommodate their strict religious requirements the egg donor ideally must be Jewish and must be, and remain, unmarried. The writer of the post felt that if the egg donor were to be a lesbian, this would rule out the likelihood that she would ever marry (a man), thereby meeting the aforementioned prerequisite that the donor be now, and remain, unmarried.
By the time I had digested the gist of this somewhat unusual request I was starting to feel a little uneasy. Not that someone should donate an egg. In itself that was fine. What bothered me initially is that it was considered acceptable to use a lesbian woman as an egg donor simply because she would effectively be guaranteed never to get married (under Jewish law).
In 2012 in Australia this is a correct assumption. Lesbian couples cannot currently marry in Australia, and if they get married overseas their marriages are not legally recognised here. In any case, Orthodox Judaism does not currently recognise same-sex marriages anywhere in the world, so even if they could get married under a civil jurisdiction, they would not be considered married under Orthodox Jewish law.
What this doesn’t take into account is that at some time in the future lesbian couples may be able to get civilly married in Australia. Given this possibility, it raises questions as to whether said lesbian egg donor, unmarried at the time of donation, would still be considered unmarried in the eyes of the Jewish law if she were to tie the knot with a same-sex partner under civil law. Whilst this is not a concern of mine, it may need to be a consideration for the prospective parents.
What is of greater concern to me is the welfare of any child born from the gift of an egg to this couple by an unmarried lesbian donor. Specifically, I would be concerned that this child might be raised in a manner that did not take into account that it may grow up to be same-sex attracted. Given that Orthodox Jewish couples of strong religious observance do not typically consider homosexuality acceptable, the likelihood of such an inflexible upbringing is high.
Should the child turn out to be other than heterosexual, and assuming it was nonetheless expected to conform to heterosexual norms, there is an increased chance of negative mental health outcomes, self-harm and even suicide. Current Australian scientific research1 shows that these scenarios are prevalent in religious environments intolerant of homosexuality.
The ethical dilemma for the egg donor, as I see it, is whether she should donate an egg to a couple, with the full knowledge that any child born of her egg and raised by this couple will potentially suffer due to the religious attitudes of the parents, if it turns out to be same-sex attracted.
How would the egg donor feel if this child experienced a life of misery because it was forced to conform to heterosexual norms? Would that be an acceptable outcome to the donor?
Ultimately this decision is one for the egg donor to make. Being party to the creation of life is not a responsibility to be taken lightly, and hopefully the donor would take this situation into account, along with any other considerations she may have. Needless to say, all parties would want the best outcome for the child. I just hope all parties understand the consequences of their actions and attitudes.
1. Refer Suicide Prevention Australia – GLBT Position Statement (PDF here)