Health minister allows artificial insemination for ‘chained’ women

Israel has until now refused to let women whose husbands deny them a divorce get pregnant through donated sperm or IVF, due to fierce rabbinate opposition

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative. In vitro fertilization (IVF) of an egg cell. (iStock by Getty Images/ man_at_mouse)
Illustrative. In vitro fertilization (IVF) of an egg cell. (iStock by Getty Images/ man_at_mouse)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz changed his ministry’s policies on Tuesday to give so-called “chained women” access to artificial insemination and other fertility treatments, following years of efforts by activists.

Until now, such options were all but off-limits for “chained” women — whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce, or get in Hebrew, leaving them in a tragic state of religious and legal limbo — as Health Ministry guidelines required the consent of a married woman’s partner before she could use them, which they were unlikely to request or receive from their divorce-refusing husbands.

This week, Horowitz revised those guidelines, despite stiff opposition from the Chief Rabbinate, the Walla news site reported.

“On this matter as with any medical issue, the only consideration that the Health Ministry must take into account is the professional medical consideration. Non-medical considerations are not relevant to the ministry’s guidelines and we will remove them,” Horowitz was quoted as saying in the report.

The policy change comes as a result of years of efforts by the organization Mavoi Satum, which advocates on behalf of agunot — the Hebrew term for “chained” women.

“After years of hard, dedicated work we have finally succeeded in freeing the wombs of agunot, and they can now get pregnant through sperm donation without needing permission from their chaining husbands. Another step toward a world without agunot!” the organization said in response to the rule change on Tuesday.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz leads a meeting of his Meretz faction at the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 28, 2022. (Yonatan SindelFlash90)

Jewish law takes exception to a “chained” woman conceiving a child with a man who is not her husband, as such a baby would be considered a mamzer, or illegitimate child, a status that would make it incredibly difficult for them and their subsequent offspring to marry in Israel. However, no such issue exists in the case of a “chained” woman getting pregnant through artificial insemination, a concept that effectively exists outside the rules governing mamzer status.

Nevertheless, the Chief Rabbinate has long opposed offering such fertility treatments to agunot because of a concept in Jewish law known as “marit ayin,” literally “appearance to the eye,” which forbids actions that could reasonably give the appearance of impropriety even when nothing prohibited has occurred.

The issue of “chained women” is a complex one, particularly in Israel where all marriages and divorces are overseen by a national rabbinate and must conform to its views of Jewish law. Under the rabbinate’s interpretation, there is no way to dissolve a legally valid marriage without the consent of the husband. Rabbinic courts can impose sanctions, including prison time, on husbands who are recognized as refusing to give a religious divorce, but they cannot force them to give one.

Precise numbers on the prevalence of divorce denials and agunot are highly contentious, as the figures put out by rabbinic courts refer only to those women recognized by the courts as such. Because the process can take years in some cases, advocates say the official figures are far, far lower than the true number of women who are in this limbo state, as many are stuck waiting for official recognition while they are in fact being denied a divorce.

According to the Center for Women’s Justice, there are between 2,500 and 3,000 women who have been waiting at least two years to receive a get, but only a few hundred of these are recognized by courts as being denied a get from their husbands. Just a few dozen of those get-denying husbands are subjected to sanctions from rabbinic courts.

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