Breaking the stigma of surrogacy...

... among the religious

August 21, 2019 17:46
Breaking the stigma of surrogacy...

ORNA BEN-AVRAHAM is publishing a book about her experiences serving as a surrogate mother.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

‘When I was a little girl, every time I heard the biblical story about Jacob and Rachel, how she would exclaim, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’ I would worry that I, too, might have trouble bearing children,” recalls Orna Ben-Avraham, who two years ago served as a surrogate mother. “Thankfully, everything worked out well and my pregnancies and births all went smoothly.
“I first learned about surrogacy back when I was pregnant with my first child. I remember thinking to myself that this might be something I could do to help another family. My husband and I spoke about it at great length over the years, and at some point we decided to go for it.”

When Ben-Avraham, 27, who lives in Esh Kodesh in the Binyamin Region, began her surrogate pregnancy, people in her community were not really sure how to wrap their heads around the idea. She even had to obtain halachic permission before continuing with her plan of action.

 “I first heard about the idea of being a surrogate mother from the Puah Institute [Family, Fertility and Medicine – According to Halacha],” says Ben-Avraham. “Before that, I’d always thought surrogates had to be single women, which meant that I’d never be able to be one. But one day I met a woman from Revava and then another one from Gush Etzion who were carrying babies for others, and that was it – I was hooked. I requested authorization from Rabbi Arele Harel from Shilo, who acquiesced.

“The authorization is based on the principle of whether the child belongs to the mother who donated the oocyte, or rather to the woman who carried the child throughout the pregnancy. If you go by the former reasoning, then the surrogate is halachicly considered a human incubator and there’s nothing technical that prohibits a married woman from acting as a surrogate. I feel like I carried out an incredibly important mitzvah, and certainly not a transgression, or tried to make light of the rules of Jewish law.”

How many religious women do you know who’ve acted as surrogates?
“I’ve met a few, probably less than a dozen. Of the 120 surrogates I’ve met through our Whatsapp group, less than 10 of them were religious women.”

How did this become more popular among religious women?
“It was after the Carmel Forest fire disaster. One of the people who died was 16-year-old Elad Riban, who’d been an only child. His mother wanted to have another child to help her overcome her trauma, and a married friend of hers agreed to serve as a surrogate, for no fee.

“So they approached Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who said that through a ruling that had been made by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, they’d found a way to allow it. Once this was allowed for one baby, that set a precedent for others. In other words, not only was there no concern of the baby having mamzer status [an illigitemate child] according to Jewish law, but it was officially allowed. The Puah Institute has also officially allowed married women to act as surrogates. Another advantage for surrogates being married is that they can receive support from their spouses throughout the pregnancy and birth.”

BEN-AVRAHAM, who lives in the Binyamin Reigion and has a family of her own, hopes to convince other women to serve as surrogates. (Credit: Courtesy)

NOW THAT she’s fulfilled her goal of helping someone have a baby, Ben-Avraham wants to spread her story, especially among the national-religious community, in an effort to shatter the prejudice and encourage more women to consider being a surrogate. She launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds, which will enable her to publish a book about her experiences.
“My book includes correspondence I carried out during the process,” she says. “I really hope that by reading my book, other women will dare to consider surrogacy. That would make me so happy.”

Once Ben-Avraham decided she wanted to be a surrogate mother, she began looking for a couple whom she could help.
“At first, I responded to a message I saw posted on Facebook by a couple looking for a surrogate, which included an image of a woman with a hole in her womb,” describes Ben-Avraham. “I contacted them and told them that I’d be interested in helping them in about a year’s time, since I still had a six-month old at the time. I didn’t know anything about them yet. A year later, I met a couple through a friend of mine, and it turned out to be the same couple. They are traditional – couples who are more religious seem to have a harder time wrapping the heads around the idea of someone else carrying their baby for nine months. This couple approached Rabbi Shlomo Aviner to receive permission.”

What was it like dealing with the couple?
“Well, for example, they asked me not to go to crowded places. I didn’t mind committing to that condition. Normally, surrogacy costs about NIS 160,000, but I was happy to receive much less than that, so they wouldn’t be stressed out by money issues. That made me feel good. They’d pay for a lot of my expenses, such as gas and medical tests, even though I didn’t ask them to.”
Ben-Avraham clearly remembers when the fertilized embryo was implanted in her uterus. “It was a bit scary,” she recalls, “They only had seven frozen eggs left, and the chances of getting pregnant each time was one in six. They used an embryo that wasn’t their most successful one, but we got lucky and it took hold. Just after Yom Kippur I found out I was pregnant and I immediately called to tell them. The woman shouted out in happiness – it was wild.”

From that moment on, the woman was constantly in touch with Ben-Avraham. “She’d gotten pregnant a few times, but had never made it past the first trimester. So during those first few months, she had a hard time enjoying the process since she was so nervous. In the later stages, I would tell her all the time how the baby was kicking or about other things I felt. I believe that’s one of the roles of a surrogate – to help the biological mother feel like she’s experiencing the pregnancy right along with you. Every detail I shared with her was priceless. It’s so important. In fact, she experienced many pregnancy symptoms, too, which was absolutely remarkable to watch.”

How did your extended family react to your decision?
“We told my parents about our plans even before I got pregnant. They were very concerned and wanted to make sure I understood what I was getting into, that I wasn’t being taken advantage of. Once they saw I was stable, they were very supportive. We told other family members only after the first trimester, just before I started showing. I sent my neighbors a WhatsApp message about it. I told them about the wonderful couple we were helping, and how in six month’s time, they would be able to hold their beautiful baby in their arms because of my help. Everyone got it. With strangers, I didn’t talk about it at all.”

ANOTHER QUESTION that Ben-Avraham had to answer was of course what her connection with the baby would be after the birth.
“From the start, it was clear to me that I would not have a relationship with the baby,” she says. “It’s like I was a babysitter all those months. And as it turns out, that pregnancy felt so different from when I was pregnant with my own children. My kids understood all along that this baby was not going to be their sibling, that I was helping someone else grow their baby, and they seemed happy with that explanation. One night, I was cuddling with my son, Harel, on the couch when the baby kicked hard. He looked down and said to the baby, ‘Don’t kick my mommy!’ I laughed and then explained to him that it was actually a really good thing that the baby was kicking.”

BEN-AVRAHAM’S WATER broke on a Saturday night. “I was starting to get a little anxious during the ninth month, and I was really ready for the baby to be born already,” continues Ben-Avraham. “There’d been a case in my community where the mother had stopped feeling movement and they were able to save the baby at the last moment. So I was really ready to see the sweet couple with the baby in their arms. They, on the other hand, had been relaxed since we got through the first trimester, since that had been the difficult period for them in their unsuccessful pregnancies.”

Was the couple present at the birth?
“Yes. As soon as the birth began, I called them so that the mother could be the first person to hold the baby after the birth. And after the baby was born, she was so busy thanking me that I had to remind her to go hold him. As soon as he was in her arms, he began to cry and she told him, ‘Don’t worry, mommy’s here.’ I think that was the most incredible moment of my life – even more amazing than my wedding or the birth of my own children.
“The midwife, who’d been working in the profession for over 30 years, told us it was the most emotional birth she’d ever assisted. The next day, my husband brought our kids to the hospital so they could say goodbye to the baby and wish him well. It was really important to us that they experience this separation, that the baby not just disappear. I also attended the brit milah, which was so beautiful. The couple had waited 11 long years for this child. The father explained to the guests about the background of the name they’d chosen, described the long process they’d gone through to reach that day, and also thanked me in front of everybody. It was really moving.”

Are you still in touch?
“Yes. Not so long ago we got together and the mother crouched down next to her son and asked him if he knew that he’d grown inside my belly. I don’t think he really understood, since he’s only two years old, but he smiled and gave me a high-five. I don’t feel any maternal connection with him, I’m just so happy to see their beautiful family. It makes me feel so fulfilled.”

BEN-AVRAHAM’S CURRENT goal is to raise awareness of surrogacy in her own community and to convince other women to serve as surrogates.
“Fewer than 1,000 babies have been born in Israel through surrogacy,” says Ben-Avraham. “I think this is mostly because of people’s preconceived notions that women work as surrogates purely for the money. They feel like it’s synonymous with organ trafficking or even prostitution. My goal is to put an end to this stigma. There are so many couples who yearn to hold a baby in their arms. When I saw how happy the couple I helped was when they looked down at their newborn son, I felt like I was on top of the world. It was such an honor to have been a surrogate mother.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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