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Quadriplegic Israeli Woman Challenges Surrogacy Rules And Loses A Child

Ora Mor Yosef, a quadriplegic Israeli woman, had a surrogate child via a niece who underwent the procedure in India and gave birth in Israel. But Israeli authorities, including the High Court, ruled against Mor Yosef, and the baby has been in foster care for more than two years.
Emily Harris
Ora Mor Yosef, a quadriplegic Israeli woman, had a surrogate child via a niece who underwent the procedure in India and gave birth in Israel. But Israeli authorities, including the High Court, ruled against Mor Yosef, and the baby has been in foster care for more than two years.

Ora Mor Yosef, a disabled Israeli woman, challenged her country's rules about surrogate parenting and lost the baby.

Single and in her 30s, her efforts began by asking her traditional Jewish family what they thought.

"I wanted to hear how they would feel if I were a single parent," Mor Yosef says. "To my joy they agreed, and gave their blessing."

The next step was getting pregnant. But Mor Yosef has progressive muscular dystrophy and doctors advised her against using a sperm donor and carrying a child herself.

She can move only her head and fingers. But she can drive her wheelchair, manage a computer and a phone, and play with nieces and nephews who visit all the time.

Mor Yosef decided to try surrogate parenting. To do this within Israel, a government committee must grant approval.

Single parents are not accepted. Mor Yosef found a potential male partner — same-sex couples are not approved either — but the committee turned them down, doubting their commitment to each other.

Mor Yosef calls this "very disappointing."

"Because on the one hand, pregnancy would endanger my life. But on the other, the committee would not approve surrogacy," she says.

Growing numbers of Israeli couples, mainly gay males, were turning to international surrogacy as a way to start a family.

Mor Yosef thought she would try that, too.

She wanted to use her own eggs. She had difficulty finding a doctor, but eventually she did and 10 of her eggs were removed and fertilized. Mor Yosef wound up with three viable embryos.

A Niece As A Surrogate

A niece agreed to act as the surrogate and traveled to the U.S., where laws on surrogacy vary state to state, for the implantation procedure. It failed. Mor Yosef says "we all cried a lot" then kept on trying.

Mor Yosef was in her early 40s by this time. A lawyer who later argued her case before Israel's highest court, Shmuel Moran, calls her next steps "original."

Mor Yosef turned to India, one of several countries where surrogacy is much easier than in Israel. There, an egg from South Africa and sperm from an Israeli friend were implanted in her niece.

Most international surrogacies in popular places like India, Nepal and Thailand hire a local woman to carry the child. The birth happens in that country, and once Israel approves, the parents bring the baby home.

What's unusual in Mor Yosef's case is the pregnant surrogate was Israeli and came back to Israel to deliver.

This was an unprecedented challenge to Israeli surrogacy law.

"The mistake was that they came to Israel to give birth to the child," Moran, the lawyer, said.

For surrogacies done outside of Israel, the law requires that at least one parent prove a genetic connection before taking the newborn home.

In Israel, women who give birth are considered the mothers automatically. Even in approved surrogacies, legal paperwork is not done until after the child is born.

The lawyer says Mor Yosef made another mistake by alerting Israeli authorities that she, not her pregnant niece, wanted to be recognized as the mother.

The Baby Is Sent To Foster Care

Mor Yosef says she wanted to get everything in order ahead of time. Instead, a child welfare official came to the birth, declared the infant in danger and transferred her to foster care.

This was in early 2013. Neomi Moravia, who runs an Israeli organization advocating for disabled rights, believes Mor Yosef's physical limitations led authorities to take away the infant.

"She has a house, she has two or three caregivers and she has a very loving family," Moravia says. "What other reason they have to take her baby from her?"

Moran says a better choice for Mor Yosef might have been to just take the baby home, raise her, and sort it out officially after the parent–child bond was well-established.

"Not to lie, but not to come and to fight for the formal position in the beginning when you are risking the most important thing that you want to have," Moran says. "She knew from the beginning, I believe, that she's playing with the borders."

Mor Yosef sued the state, seeking to be recognized as the mother of the baby she calls Natanella. She argues that the child would not exist had it not been for her efforts and desire.

"I am the mother," Mor Yosef says.

The Court Defines Parenthood

Israel's High Court disagreed. A seven-judge panel declared the case "a crossroad between advanced technology, individual disability, the universal yearning for parenthood and the evolution of the Israeli law."

The ruling, handed down in April, defined four ways to be recognized as a parent in Israel.

Three automatically exclude Mor Yosef: a genetic link, giving birth, or having a legally recognized connection to another person with those connections, such as a partner or spouse.

That left adoption. Israeli child welfare officials have declared the child to be eligible for adoption.

Officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but professor Eliezar Jaffe, who helped start Hebrew University's School of Social Work, says Mor Yosef's disability wouldn't automatically disqualify her, as the state considers a variety of factors in each individual case.

But her case leaves him uncomfortable overall, concerned that in the drive to fulfill desires to parent, the best interests of the child can become secondary.

"People who care about whether it's fair to them may be less focused on the child," he says, emphasizing he is not familiar with this case beyond the court ruling. "I'm not saying it's in this case. But I'm saying that when that happens, it's not the best interest of the child. It's the best interest of me."

That, Jaffe says, bothers him a lot.

Mor Yosef has decided not to apply to adopt the child. She thinks she'll be turned down, though she says that would be unjust.

"I didn't break any law; I went around them. I'm being punished now but in a few years I think this will be legal. I may be ahead of my time," she says.

As an alternative way to bring the child into her life, her sister is applying to adopt the baby, who has now been in foster care for 2 1/2 years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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