Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
In last week’s editorial, Jane Eisner once again fretted about the state of contemporary American Judaism, most pointedly about the purported declining fertility rate amongst non-Orthodox Jews as touted by the infamous (and frankly overplayed) 2013 Pew survey. While she proposed no actual, feasible solution to this problem (or rather, this set of statistics presented as a problem), she exhibited a paranoia about the extinction of American non-Orthodox Jewry mainly due to her arbitrary rubric of what an appropriate Jew can and should be.
Eisner severely delineates between Orthodox Jewry and non-Orthodox Jewry, the latter characterized as “progressive Jews,” ostensibly Jews that are a part of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements as well as the unaffiliated. In her piece, she points to comparisons of fertility rates between American Orthodox Jewry and the aforementioned subgroups of non-Orthodox Jewish strains, citing one analysis that “there are 5,000 more Orthodox Jews and 10,000 fewer non-Orthodox ones in America, every year.”
What Eisner fails to illustrate is the significance of how or why this is problematic.
By now every woman with even the slightest interest in birthing babies has probably read Jean M. Twenge’s article “How Long Can You Wait To Have a Baby”, in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. If you’ve managed to miss it, and the comments it generated in all corners of the Internet, here’s the short version: Those oft-cited statistics about how fertility drops precipitously after 35 and if you haven’t had kids by then you might as well just pack up and take your shriveled useless womb out of here? They’re wrong. And not just “oops we were a little off” wrong, but “this data comes from French birth records dating from 1670 to 1830” wrong.
If using numbers from 17th century France doesn’t immediately strike you as ridiculous, take a minute to ponder what was going on in America (which, of course, was not yet the United States of America) in the 1670s. King Philip’s War was breaking out in New England, possession of New York City was being fought over by the English and the Dutch, and the Royal African Company controlled the slave trade to Virginia. The 1830s were a little more advanced, what with the introduction of the Colt revolver and the Oregon Trail. But still. As Twenge puts it, “We’ve rearranged our lives, worried endlessly, and forgone countless career opportunities based on a few statistics about women who resided in thatched-roof huts and never saw a light bulb.”
Reading the Atlantic article, I was startled by this upending of “facts” I’d been hearing for years, and dismayed that it took so long for someone to make this knowledge public. Popular writing about fertility may have been lazy, and some medical authorities appear to have used questionable numbers in attempts to dumb down reproduction-related information for the public, but there was no conspiracy to hide the unreliability of the original data. Twenge, a psychology researcher, simply looked it up in the relevant medical databases. But after my initial surprise, I felt conflicted.
I am not a grandmother — yet! But my friends who are blessed with grandchildren tell me that grandparenthood is equal parts pure love and complete wonder. Some even tell me they wish they could have skipped parenting and gone straight to grandparenting. I can’t wait.
Or maybe I can.
According to an article published last May in The New York Times, eager grandparents are taking their daughters’ fertility into their own hands by paying for egg freezing. In today’s world of reproductive technology, it’s never too early to harvest viable ovaries for the delicate, sometimes elusive eggs that represent potential grandchildren. As parents watch their single daughters get older, they worry that their children will age out of their reproductive years. Biological clocks are not simply ticking, they’re booming as loudly as Big Ben.
Before I get into the details, I should note that freezing your daughter’s eggs is not an extreme alternative for a particular kind of mother. Back in the day, when I was closing in on 30 without a single marriage prospect, I don’t doubt that my mother would have considered taking me to a fertility clinic for the sake of her own grandmotherhood. Truth be told, I love that I have a feasible option in case my daughter’s baby timeline is not exactly in synch with mine — or biology’s. And if she’s on the other side of 35 without a partner, she can still be a mother if she so chooses.
Perhaps at this point I should mention I may be getting ahead of myself: My daughter is only 18.
Have you ever noticed that some of the juiciest conversations seem to pop up instantly? This mother and her twenty-something daughter frequently find themselves working in front of the computer when an instant message appears on their screen. Here’s one recent back-and-forth that grew out of an IM conversation between mother and daughter.
Alexis: So it’s official, I’m off birth control! Crazy, huh?
Sharon: Wow, you really did it. So exciting. How are you feeling?
Alexis: I’m freaked. I’m happy, of course, to get off the hormones after all this time, but not sure I’m really ready for this whole baby-making business. James just emailed me our health insurance benefits with all of the maternity coverage highlighted. Aah!
Sharon: Well, I had no idea how long it was going to take for me to get pregnant, so your dad and I just jumped in. We didn’t realize it was going to happen so fast. Remember, I told you, after only 6 weeks you were on the way—so watch out!
Alexis: I really hope it comes that easy for us. I thought all my oogling over pregnant women and babies meant I was ready. But when I think about it seriously, I’m not so sure.
Pressure against the Pu’ah to abstain from holding a conference for men only on fertility and Jewish law seems to be working. As of this morning, 9 out of 10 Israeli doctors scheduled to speak had withdrawn. In addition, the Ethics Board of the Physicians’ Union announced that from now on doctors will not be allowed to participate in medical events or conferences in which women are excluded, either as speakers or patients. This is an enormous victory by any social activism standards.
A roundtable of 30 social justice organizations convened by the New Israel Fund over the past few months to address the exclusion of women seems to be largely responsible for this success. Dr. Hanna Kehat, founder of the religious women’s forum Kolech, brought the Pu’ah conference to the attention of the other members of the roundtable — and several member organizations helped activate pressure. (Full disclosure: I also sit on the roundtable, representing The Center for Women’s Justice. Everything reported here is with permission).
Lili Ben Ami and Limor Levy Osemi, of the Lobby for Equality Between the Sexes, have been particularly influential in achieving the support of the physicians’ Ethics’ Board, and have been speaking to doctors, Knesset members and members of the media. Mickey Gitzin, director of Be Free Israel, which promotes civil equality, has also been encouraging doctors not to cave into Haredi pressure.
Imagine a medical conference dedicated to women’s bodies in which no women are allowed to speak or even sit in the audience. No, this is not a Victorian novel or the back room of an old-fashioned gentlemen’s club. This is Israel 2012.
For the fourth year in a row, Pu’ah, a publicly funded organization dealing with gynecology, fertility and Jewish law, or halacha, is set to hold their annual medical conference on January 11 in a setting completely devoid of actual women.
Women are excluded as conference presenters on fertility, medicine, or Jewish law, and barred from even sitting in the crowd. Over the past three years, Kolech has written petitions, gone to the media, and turned to medical professionals asking them not to participate “This year, for the first time, people are taking an interest, and maybe something will happen,” Kolech’s founder, Hanna Kehat, said.
I just came across a Craigslist posting via Twitter (oy, my life!) looking for a Jewish woman to donate her eggs to a Jewish couple looking to conceive. This couple, through an agency called A Jewish Blessing, is offering $8,000 for an egg from a Jewish donor. A Jewish Blessing was founded in 2005 by Judy Weiss, a registered nurse, in response to the growing number of requests from Jewish families for her help in finding qualified and extraordinary young Jewish donors and surrogates. And this is one of many similar organizations helping connect Jewish parents-to-be with Jewish eggs.
I remember seeing flyers posted around the Brandeis University campus for Jewish egg donors with high SAT scores promising upwards of $20,000 — even $40,000 — for a Jewish over-acheiver’s eggs. I remember the first time I saw one of those flyers. “Forty thousand bucks?” I thought. “What a deal!” I called up my dad, a doctor, to ask him if this sort of thing was for real. Within about five minutes he had convinced me that this was something I would never do. Egg donation is no small matter.
Back in 9th grade health class, we were tasked with creating — and memorizing — a chart of the various methods of birth control on the market and how effective they were in preventing pregnancy and, in the case of latex condoms, sexually transmitted diseases: We learned about oral contraceptives, barrier contraceptives, spermicides, and intrauterine devices. Among the least effective forms of birth control, we were told, was something called the “rhythm method,” which involved “charting a woman’s cycle.”
Since getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant was something we were to avoid doing — we were teenagers, after all — and since the birth control method called “rhythm” was something that wasn’t considered all that reliable a way to prevent pregnancy, we didn’t linger on recognizing the biological signs of ovulation that this mysterious “charting” entails.
The overriding message in high school and, again, in college — where, at the campus health center, condoms and prescriptions for the Pill were handed out liberally, and brochures on preventing unwanted pregnancies and STDs were stacked in the waiting room — was this: Don’t get pregnant.
While I agree with all of Sarah’s broader points in her critique of the recent New York magazine cover story, “Waking Up from the Pill,” I do think the article makes a valid point about how many young women are, in varying degrees, ignorant about their reproductive system.
As Sarah points out, there are many reasons women put off having children to their mid to late 30s — from their professional and personal ambitions to the fact that they lack the financial and domestic stability required to raise kids in this country today. And it is indeed foolish to claim, as writer Vanessa Grigoriadis does — and Double X’s Amanda Marcotte points out — that women are somehow too stupid to realize that delaying pregnancy decreases their fertility.
I don’t think women are too stupid to realize this, but I do think that these issues aren’t discussed or taught as much as they should be. I know that I didn’t know too much about my reproductive system until I took a women’s studies class in college, where the true wonders of the vulva and her interior components were revealed to me for the first time. As someone who has since taken a real interest in understanding what it means to be a woman today, I have since made it my business to know about my business. But what about all the women that didn’t sign up for women’s studies classes and haven’t spent the last few years pouring over the feminist blogosphere? Where and how would they learn?
It’s no secret that Israel is a fabulous country to live in if you happen to be struggling with infertility. Not only is health care considered a right, not a privilege, but so is childbearing. The universal government-funded health care, package covers fertility treatments for women until they produce two children.
Israeli women take full and enthusiastic advantage of the privilege. Unlike their American counterparts, who must make tremendous financial sacrifices to finance in vitro fertilization treatments, the number of attempts are not limited by their means. Even the poorest of women make attempt after attempt. They can use their own eggs, or donor eggs, and they have the right to keep trying at state expense. (Unofficially, I have seen anecdotal evidence of “infertility aliya” — American Jewish couples who have become citizens and settled in Israel primarily so that they can qualify for state-funded IVF. In the US, they simply can’t afford children.)
Now, the state has even better news for women who aren’t dealing with infertility yet — but worry that they might someday. Beginning this month, the freezing of eggs by healthy women for future use is available in Israel for the first time covered by state health insurance.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s eldest daughter, Adina Bar Shalom, is helping to train Haredi women for jobs in Israel’s high-tech sector.
Meanwhile, secular Israeli women have a higher rate of workforce participation than do women in any other developed country, Haaretz reports.
In a discovery that could help women undergoing cancer treatment preserve their fertility, scientists have created the first artificial human ovary that can grow and mature human eggs.
I have a cousin with three adult sons, the eldest of whom is now in his 30s. Though the oldest recently came close, none of them is married. Now, I don’t know the inside scoop about why the oldest son and his fiancée broke up. But I do know that his parents are hungry for grandchildren while they are young enough to be active grandparents.
I don’t blame them. My children are still too young (at the moment, 16, 10 and 9) to be thinking much about marriage, but my husband and I talk about it with them. I treat it the way I treat in-marriage, as something we regard as a priority. We talk about it much the same way we talk about reading and education and helping other people, in a matter-of-fact manner threaded through relevant conversation.
I suspect that talking with our children about what makes a good time to get married, and about marrying other Jews, puts us in the minority among the non-Orthodox.
For many couples, keeping the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” doesn’t come easy.
The good news is that, today, those who have trouble becoming pregnant have options that Abraham and Sarah (the Bible’s most famous reproductively challenged couple) never did; the bad news is that halacha or Jewish law — with its set of demands about how a child is to be conceived, and how religious lineage and priestly status is to be passed from generation to generation — can complicate matters of employing reproductive technology.
Those complications are the raisons d’être of the Jerusalem-based Puah Institute. The organization counsels infertile couples, and sends supervisors to fertility clinics around the world to ensure that the business of making babies is done within the confines of Jewish law. The work of the Institute, named for a heroic midwife in the Book of Exodus, is detailed in this enlightening article, published Sunday in Canada’s National Post, and its companion podcast.
As a Puah supervisor told the National Post: “Just like rabbis supervise the production of Kosher food, we supervise the fertility process. It’s not that we don’t trust the labs, but this is the only way this process is Halachically sound.”
Retail is sluggish; real estate prices are down; but the market for Jewish eggs seems not to be suffering — even though it costs the couples receiving them between $40,000 and $50,000.
In New York, payment to the women who “donate” their eggs is between $5,000–$8,000; the rest of the money goes to pay medical expenses — and $4,000–$6,000 to the agency that makes the match would-be parents–donor match.
The economy has made a slight impact on their work, say two women who make those matches: “We had two three weeks I could really feel a difference but it’s really picked up again, in an intense way,” says Ruth Tavor, who with her husband co-owns a New York City company, NY LifeSpring, which finds mostly Israeli egg donors for their international Jewish clientele. Egg donors can have their eggs harvested up to six times, and many Israelis return again and again to donate. A Forward article from last year explores the phenomenon in greater detail here.
Judy Weiss advertises for donors around the country on Craigslist and in local papers. Her company, A Jewish Blessing has been in business for about four years, with offices in Sonoma County, Calif., in Jacksonville, Fla., and in Israel. The economy “has affected specific families whom I am working with,” she says. “In one case the husband lost his job and the family had no choice but to place their dream of a child through egg donation on hold.”
Even when an infertile couple finds an egg donor and puts down the money, there is no guarantee that a baby will result. The donor is paid for the successful retrieval of her eggs, not after a pregnancy and birth result. “Perhaps for any family out there looking at such a large ‘investment’ with no true security that the outcome will be positive it is a little daunting to undertake when the news is constantly full of doom and gloom about the economy,” Weiss says.
Outside of these private matching agencies, couples offer far higher amounts to potential egg donors. One current ad, posted on Craigslist in multiple cities around the country, offers $20,000,while the ads looking for eggs from young woman from larger ethnic groups offer as little as $4,500.
Why are Jewish eggs worth so much more?
Because there’s definite demand and less availability than in many other groups, say the experts. Jewish women, like other well-educated women in America tend to defer marriage and pregnancy. By the time they’re ready, their own eggs may not be. And Jews, like others, want as close a genetic match as possible in their donated eggs.
“Everyone I’ve ever worked with, Irish, Italian and Africans from Africa, people always ask for a donor who comes from their background. The Jewish families are not really unique in that,” says Weiss.
What’s more, few American Jewish women seem to be eager to sell their eggs.
“Young Jewish woman don’t run around trying to donate their eggs but they are incredibly generous when they know there’s a Jewish family in need,” Weiss says.