Why Israeli gays opt for US surrogate births

TEL AVIV, Israel — At an age when most people are welcoming their first grandchildren into the world, Avishay Greenfield, 59, gets little sleep as a father of twin babies.

For Greenfield, it is a dream come true after waiting several decades to have children with his partner. But this later-in-life scenario isn’t only a function of family dynamics and finances. In the last several years, the coming of age for gay rights in Israel has encouraged a growing number of same-sex couples, including Greenfield and his partner, to consider surrogacy as an option for having children.

Yet despite the country’s reputation as a world leader in reproductive technology, surrogacy is illegal for same-sex couples. A recently failed appeal challenging surrogacy laws serves as another setback for the gay community in Israel, forcing many couples to seek costly alternatives abroad.

“It is a basic human instinct and deep emotional need to want children,” said Greenfield, who found a surrogate in the United States to give birth to his twins seven months ago. “It is absurd that we can’t do this in our own country and must spend a lot of money to have children elsewhere.”

The number of Israeli gay couples who have worked with U.S.-based agencies is unknown, but surrogate births to same-sex Israeli couples are expected to double this year at Circle Surrogacy, a Boston-based group that helped Greenfield find a surrogate. Israeli gay couples who worked with Circle in 2009 gave birth to 18 children.

The average cost for U.S. surrogacy services: $100,000 to $180,000, a price range that motivates many couples to seek out less expensive alternatives in other countries, including India and Ukraine. But it is significantly easier for Israelis to have children in the U.S. because of the countries’ close diplomatic ties. Couples in search of surrogates in India and other places can hit a snag when trying to establish Israeli citizenship for their babies.

Finding the right surrogate is no easy feat, either. In fact, surrogacy has never been a popular option for Israelis because of the strict laws governing who can be a surrogate. Depending on religious beliefs, the rules are so cumbersome that surrogacy falls out of favor for many couples. For example, some religious leaders say that the birth mother must be single and Jewish to ensure the baby is Jewish. Same goes for the egg donor. The pendulum swings the other way, as some religious leaders say it is not necessary to have a Jewish birth mother.

“Right now, the rabbinic opinion weighs toward the genetic mother as being the legal mother,” said Rabbi Edward Reichman, a medical doctor and professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “But it is hard to set legal precedents for surrogacy because these things didn’t exist in prior centuries.” In general, though, the concept of surrogacy for same sex couples is frowned upon by religious Jews.

“There is still ignorance and lack of acceptance among sectors of [Israeli] society,” said Irit Rosenblum, founder and executive director of New Family Organization in Tel Aviv. Approximately 50 percent of the Israeli population feels that same-sex couples are just as good at parenting as heterosexual couples, according to Rosenblum.

Procreation has a special meaning in Israel. “People in Israel, religious and secular, tend to take the biblical commandment, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ seriously,” Rosenblum said. “Having children is deeply rooted in Jewish culture and is a strong Jewish value. Israel is a very family and children-oriented society, and people respect parenting and family.”

There is a subtle likeness to Greenfield in one of his twins. He and his partner each fertilized an egg that was then carried by the same surrogate.

The challenge was finding a surrogate who was aligned with the values Greenfield envisioned for the birth mother of his children. The search began by riffling through dozens upon dozens of profiles. Eye color, height, education, religious beliefs and geographic locations were presented as if items on a menu.

Greenfield and Caspi eventually found a match in an unexpected place — Texas.

The surrogate and her husband were former military and Christian. “But when we met them, we knew immediately that they were the right fit,” Greenfield said. “They share the same values and are truly an extension of our family.”

The process from finding a surrogate to the birth was about year, but establishing Israeli citizenship for a child born in the U.S. posed other challenges. After a child is born to a surrogate, parents must submit documents to Israel with DNA proof of parenthood. At the same time, the surrogate mother has to legally withdraw from parenthood, but only if a social worker appointed by the court attests that the circumstances justify the withdrawal. And finally, a conversion to Judaism may be performed to ensure the Jewishness of the newborn.

Greenfield said the process is emotionally draining, especially when family and friends are so far away. Of course, the biggest deterrent is cost. Health care in Israel is covered by the government for all citizens whether it is a routine check up or fertility treatments. That’s not the case for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender couples who want to have children.

A court decision in 2005 granted lesbian couples the right to adopt a child born to the other partner by artificial insemination, and while it was a milestone event for a population that dreamed of parenthood, it fell short of entitling same sex couples to surrogacy rights.

Etai Pinkas, a gay rights activist and the youngest city councilman in Tel Aviv, was denied access to the Israeli surrogacy program last year. He recently appealed to the Supreme Court, but was told by a representative a couple of weeks ago that the surrogacy law does not apply to same sex couples. Pinkas and his partner are now in the process of appealing to the Kinneset to redefine surrogacy laws. “This is pure discrimination that same sex parenthood is not supported by the state of Israel,” said Pinkas, who is also searching for surrogacy options outside the country. “I’m hoping to set a precedent here. We just want to have kids.”

Even though the state rejected Pinkas’ appeal, the state agreed that his petition is wake-up call for Israel to re-examine the concept of family, parenthood and human dignity.

Einat Wilf, a Labor member of the Knesset, said the Israeli government is in the process of reviewing fertility laws. When asked whether the country would consider loosening such laws to increase fertility rates for Israelis, Wilf said the laws are focused on improving access to healthcare not boosting demographics.

John Weltman, president and founder of Circle Surrogacy, said the very culture of Israel bodes well for surrogacy. “Family values are strong in this country,” said Weltman, who was a commercial litigator before founding Circle in 1995. “But no matter where people are from, surrogacy shouldn’t be perceived as just a process for those who want to have kids. It is about doing the most intimate thing in the world with a total stranger who will change your life forever.”

Weltman began focusing Circle’s attention on Israel after meeting Ron Poole-Dayan, an Israeli who moved to the U.S. to have children. Dayan said it was absurd a decade ago to think Israeli same-sex couples would even consider having children. “But there has been a critical mass of Israeli gay couples who have accumulated enough wealth,” said Dayan, who has 9-year-old twins. “I do not think gay couples are attempting to fit into Israeli society. It’s more of a genuine shared appreciation of the joys of having a family.”