The Bible Says What? ‘A surrogate mother was cast out’

The Bible Says What? ‘A surrogate mother was cast out’

Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu delves into the Torah and picks out a controversial point, before offering a Reform Jewish response

Sephardi Torah scrolls
Sephardi Torah scrolls

Our ancestors were familiar with the idea of “building families through surrogacy”. As Sarah says to Abraham: “God has kept me from bearing children, come now and consort with my maidservant, perhaps I will be built up through her” (Genesis 16:2). We call this partial surrogacy, because it provides a genetic link between father and the future child.

Practices like this were not uncommon: Abraham’s grandson Jacob has children with the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah. These non-Israelite women become part of the clan: they are family members raising their own and each other’s children.

This is in contrast to Hagar, who bears a child for Abraham and is then “sent away” at Abraham and Sarah’s command (Genesis 21:14).

These biblical women and their stories are incredibly helpful in understanding surrogacy today. The government is now consulting on changes to surrogacy law, so that the “intended parents” can acquire parental rights at birth, instead of waiting for several months.

The waiting period is there to safeguard the birth mother, so she has time to give her full, informed consent. Other proposed changes include the possibility of making payments to the ‘host’.

Now that more children are born to women acting as surrogates, who have no genetic connection with the child they will carry, there is a real chance that the commercialisation of birth becomes ever more biblical.

Who knows how many women in future will find themselves, like Hagar, cast out once their work is done? Perhaps we can learn from the story of Hagar, in contrast to Bilhah and Zilpah, and build structures that prevent the mistakes our biblical ancestors made before us.

Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu serves Sha’arei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue

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