Is it better to ask a male acquaintance to help me conceive or to use artificial insemination?

November 12, 2010

Question: I am a single woman in my late 30s. I despair of finding a suitable husband but I am anxious to have a child before it is too late. From a Jewish point of view, is it better to ask a male acquaintance to help me conceive or to use artificial insemination?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for women to find themselves in the situation you describe. A generation ago it would have been almost unthinkable for a woman to choose to raise a child without a father. Today, however, this has become a socially acceptable reality for many.

While it is a mitzvah for a man to "be fruitful and multiply", there is no such obligation incumbent on a woman. Without in anyway minimising or trivialising your desire to conceive a child, Jewish law does not obligate you to do so.

The question, then, is whether Jewish law permits you to conceive a child outside marriage. Conceiving naturally with a male acquaintance is certainly not permitted. Judaism forbids sex outside marriage even in a non-adulterous relationship. The second method, artificial insemination, is a little more complicated, although the end result is similar.

Most of the rabbinic sources that address the question of artificial insemination deal with a married woman undergoing such a procedure in the case where her husband is infertile. The major question in this case is what constitutes adultery? Some rabbis argue that the mere deposit of another man's sperm into a married woman's genital tract constitutes adultery and the child born as a result is deemed illegitimate - a mamzer.

Other rabbis argue that adultery by definition must involve a sexual act which is, of course, absent in artificial insemination. However, even the rabbis who assume a liberal position in terms of defining adultery prohibit a married women from being artificially inseminated by sperm other than her husband's, for other reasons. These include the concern that if the identity of the sperm donor is concealed, the child may unknowingly end up marrying a sibling, as well as the larger ethical concern that artificial insemination outside marriage can undermine the link between marriage and child-bearing.

As you are single, there is no issue of adultery, however, the other concerns do remain and so artificial insemination would not be a halachically acceptable option. You might want to consider adoption. I realise that it is not the same as giving birth to your biological child but there are so many unwanted babies in our world, you could make a real difference to at least one of them.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

There are many who will identify with your anxiety, including those who do have a suitable husband, for the ticking of a woman's biological clock means that there is much pressure "not to leave it too late".

In your case, there are two separate issues. The first is finding a husband. The bad news is that husbands (or wives) rarely turn up on the doorstep. They have to be found. The good news is that there is no one Mr Right and there are lots of people with whom one can have a happy marriage.

That means opening yourself to as many social opportunities as possible - by going to parties, attending events, asking friends to set up dates for you, joining charity committees, signing up to internet sites, and there are Jewish versions of all of them.

But if this still fails before your ability to have a child disappears, the second issue arises of going ahead alone. Personally, I think every child having two loving parents is the ideal.

Realistically, I also know that many mothers leave abusive husbands, or are abandoned, or are widowed, and can still bring up children alone very successfully.

In your case, though, you would be deliberately establishing a single-parent family - but whereas I am not keen on the idea, I recognise that your choices are limited through no fault of your own and you may well prove to be a wonderful mother, so I find it hard to say "Thou shalt not".

Adoption might be a possibility, but it may not satisfy your desire for a child of your own, while it is rare for a single person to be permitted to adopt a child.

Given your alternatives, I veer towards the male acquaintance option if he is likely to be of help to you when you are pregnant, as well as have a role in the child's life. However, it could also cause complications if he wants more involvement than you wish to give him, or if you came to resent his lack of involvement. It would also necessitate a carefully defined agreement as to the extent of his financial responsibilities.

Either way, you need to ensure you have the support of family and friends so that the child has a loving and stable home. Once born, his/her rights come to the fore.

And don't rule out marriage in later years.

Last updated: 11:14am, November 12 2010