Monday, March 13, 2006

YU Rabbis get Fertility education

NYTimes: It sounds like the setup of a joke: 20 rabbis walk into a fertility clinic.But it really happened. One recent Tuesday afternoon in Brooklyn, a group of young men in yarmulkes packed the waiting room of the Genesis Fertility Center, eyes glued to a roundish smudge on a video screen, absorbing a lecture in basic reproductive technology."This is the egg," said the center's lab director, sounding like a filmstrip narrator. "Here are zygotes. These are fertilized eggs."From there things got complicated, touching on everything from the shelf life of sperm samples to the mechanics of intracytoplasmic fertilization to the ethics of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.Arcane as this stuff may sound, the rabbis, all graduate students at Yeshiva University, need to know it, and not just for the course they are taking in infertility and Jewish law."This is going to be important," said the center's founder, Dr.Richard V. Grazi, as the screen showed a pipette piercing an egg to deliver sperm. "People are going to be asking you a lot of questions about this."As the science of babymaking hurtles into the future, it bumps up more and more against not just the laws of nature but also the laws of God (at least as interpreted by people). Doctrinal riddles on weighty subjects — birth, death, identity and family — that would have seemed like seminary parlor games not long ago are now posed by baffled congregants."Let's say a woman has a fully functional womb but her eggs are not viable," said Rabbi Kenneth Brander of Yeshiva, the course instructor. "Her sister says, 'Take some of my eggs.' Who's the aunt and who's the mother?" He went on. "What is the relationship between son and father where conception happened posthumously? Does the son say Kaddish for the father?" he asked, referring to the Jewish prayer for the dead.If a couple has six girls and seeks fertility treatment to try for a boy, may they destroy a fertilized egg of the wrong gender? Can a husband in a divorce unilaterally destroy the couple's stockpile of frozen fertilized eggs?"This is not like 'Star Trek' science," said Rabbi Brander, a dean at Yeshiva, which has the largest Orthodox rabbinical seminary in the country. "This is stuff that comes up every day. And if the rabbi doesn't understand reproductive technology he can't answer the questions effectively. If he doesn't know the Jewish law he can't answer them, either."Genesis, on 84th Street in Dyker Heights, retains an Orthodox rabbi — the chaplain at Maimonides Medical Center — to keep things in accordance with Jewish law. Dr. Grazi said that about two-thirds of his patients were Jewish and half of those were Orthodox...There will always be some questions that elude easy answers. What if a single woman in her 20's wants to put off motherhood to pursue a career and seeks to freeze some of her eggs for later use? Jews are instructed to multiply fruitfully. Would a rabbi send the wrong message by condoning the postponement of starting a family? And what about the possibility of complications?Now comes the joke. "There are four volumes in the code of Jewish law," Rabbi Brander said. "This is in the fifth volume."
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