The ‘Eggs’ Affair’: Egg Donation in 21st Century Israel

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. Today’s post is contributed by Angela Davis. Her post is the first on this site to explore Israel.

In this blog entry I look at the relationship between the state, medical profession and society in the provision and practice of assisted reproduction in Israel, focusing on the ‘eggs’ affair, a scandal that took place in 2000 about egg donation. Prior to the enactment of Israel’s Eggs Donation Law, 2010, the IVF Regulations allowed egg cell donations only by women who were undergoing IVF as infertility treatment. The rationale was that the health risks could not be justified unless the intervention was undergone primarily for the donor’s own benefit. In order to encourage infertility patients to donate eggs private clinics started offering economic inducements, by waiving certain costs of treatment if they would agree to ‘share’ their eggs with others.[1]

However, in 2000 a scandal that came to be known as the ‘eggs affair’[2] came to light when some women filed a personal injury action claiming damages from Professor Zion Ben-Raphael, one of Israel’s leading fertility experts, who was a chief of gynecology at a large public hospitals. The plaintiffs alleged that the doctor submitted them to excessive hormonal stimulation, retrieved dozens of eggs from single treatment cycles, and used these eggs in the treatment of large numbers of recipients at a private clinic – without their informed consent. The case was eventually settled out of court, but the plaintiffs had also complained to the police, and this led to a criminal investigation. The criminal proceedings culminated in a plea bargain, according to which the doctor confessed to certain facts and the matter was referred to a professional disciplinary tribunal, which eventually suspended his medical license for a period of two and a half years. Because the case was not adjudicated in a court of law, and the decisions of the disciplinary court are not made public, the full facts of the affair were never made clear. According to journalist reports,[3] the doctor confessed that in one case he removed 232 ova from one patient and used 155 of them for 33 recipients, and in another, he took 256 ova and used 181 for treating 34 other women.[4]

Retired Judge Vardi Zeiler, who presided over Ben-Raphael’s case at the tribunal, said he had been somewhat lenient because of Ben-Raphael’s ‘impressive service’ in the IDF (he was decorated after the War of Attrition) and in the medical field, as well as Ben-Raphael’s ‘warm regard’ for his patients. However, Zeiler said that even though there was no specific law prohibiting the doctor’s actions, medical practitioners were strictly bound by a code of ethics, which had been blatantly violated. Zeiler added that women would naturally be distressed upon learning that there were children from their eggs who were produced without their permission.[5]

Susan Martha Kahn has argued that the, ‘overwhelming desire to create Jewish babies deeply informs the Israeli embrace of reproductive technology.’[6] I would argue that the ‘eggs affair’ is an excellent example of this pronatalism at work. In Israel, the use of donor eggs is seen as a way of enabling more couples to have children of their ‘own’. Because within Judaism the mother is the woman who gives birth to the child, who provided the egg is not the crucial matter here. As the overarching goal for the state and medical professionals is to produce more babies, the means by which this goal was achieved were not viewed as important. Throughout the case Professor Ben-Raphael’s actions were played down. This can be seen in the length of time it took before he was eventually disciplined – it took seven years from the time concerns were first raised until he was sentenced – and the first aborted attempt to prosecute him for criminal offences. The reluctance of his medical colleagues to criticize him, with the implication that others behaved in the same way, indicates that that women’s right to have control over their own bodies was seen as secondary to the greater good of producing more children – they did not think he had a case to answer. The final disciplinary hearing also offers an interesting insight into gender ideology within Israeli society. It is striking that Ben-Raphael was given a lighter sentence because of his IDF record. I would like to suggest that his sentence was the manifestation of Israeli society’s belief that he had served the country once through his actions as a soldier and for a second time through enabling more women to give birth.

About the Author:

Angela DAngela Davis is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Warwick. Her research interests concern parenthood and childcare in Britain and Israel. Her current project is a comparative study of Jewish women’s experiences of maternity and infant care in England and Israel. She has also researched the provision and experience of pre-school childcare in Britain during the years 1939-2010. Previously she conducted an oral history of motherhood in post-war Britain. Her publications include Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000 (2012) and Pre-School Childcare in England, 1939–2010: Theory, Practice and Experience (2015).

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[1] D. Rabinerson, A. Dekel, R. Orvieto, D. Feldberg, D. Simon and B. Kaplan, ‘Subsidised oocyte donation in Israel (1998-2000): Results, costs and lessons’, in Human Reproduction 17 (2002), 1404-1406, pp. 1405-6.

[2] C. Shalev and G. Werner-Felmayer, ‘Patterns of globalized reproduction: Egg cells regulation in Israel and Austria’, in Israel Journal of Health Policy Research 1 (2012), 1-12, p. 5.

[3] J. Siegel-Itzkovich, ‘Doctor’s licence suspended after he admitted removing ova without consent’ in British Medical Journal 334 (2007), 557.

[4] Shalev and Werner-Felmayer, ‘Patterns of globalized reproduction’, p. 5.

[5] J. Siegel-Itzkovitch, ‘Gynecologist who stole patients’ ova suspended. Judge says ‘comparatively lenient’ sentence reflects doctor’s ‘impressive’ IDF service, but notes that women would naturally have been distressed by his actions,’ in Jerusalem Post, 9 March 2007.

[6] S. M. Kahn, Reproducing Jews: A Cultural Account of Assisted Conception in Israel (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 3.

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One thought on “The ‘Eggs’ Affair’: Egg Donation in 21st Century Israel

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #25 | Whewell's Ghost

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