Biological Wills Raising Israel's Posthumously Conceived Children

A landmark ruling in Israel has allowed babies to be conceived from frozen embryos or sperm collected from the now deceased. But as the number of these children grows, it is raising thorny questions. Is it ethical to conceive a child who will be half-orphaned at birth?

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz / DER SPIEGEL

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When Baruch, a soldier in the reserves and his mother's favorite, died in the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, he was 25 years old, single and childless. It had started with a bleeding wound in his mouth, then he was diagnosed with cancer a month later. For two years, he took medication and underwent treatment. His hair fell out, and doctors removed parts of his tongue. Before Baruch was unable to speak, he told his parents, Julia and Vladimir: "I want you to have a grandchild. From me."

Seven years after his death, in the middle of the night on Dec. 1, 2015, his daughter was born at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, a city in southern Israel. She weighed 3,200 grams (7 pounds) and had the same blue eyes as her father. Her mother named her Shira, which is Hebrew for poetry. The girl's grandmother, Julia, went to the hospital the same day and cried when she saw her, a baby "of my own blood, from my son."

"If we're talking about life after death, this is what it is," she says.

Shira Malka isn't the first child of a "deceased man" born in Israel. In fact, there are about 50 to date, all inseminated in-vitro. They are the offspring of soldiers, accident victims or sick people. They owe their lives to the wishes of dying people, but above all to the fact that the deceased men's spouses or parents fought for them to exist. The first case occurred in 2002, when an Israeli soldier was shot by a sniper in the Gaza Strip. His mother had sperm removed from the corpse within 72 hours and the resulting trial lasted eight years. His parents eventually received permission to use the sperm, and now his child is living.

Today, an instrument is in place to simplify court proceedings. Called a "biological will," it testifies that a person who has their semen or eggs frozen would like them to be posthumously used to create offspring. Baruch Pozniansky was the first person in the world to establish such a will.

Since then, about 5,000 young Israelis, including many soldiers in special forces units, have written a biological will. But is it right for children to be conceived of the dead -- or is this a new, dangerous aberration of reproductive medicine? Does this really help those affected and the grieving families? And is it legitimate to give birth to a child who will be half-orphaned from birth?

Julia Pozniansky, 61, is sitting in her living room in Karmiel, a small town in northern Israel. It's quiet here. The midday sun filters through the lace curtains. A photo of Baruch in his soldier's uniform hangs on the wall. There are pictures of him on the fridge. Julia fetches an album containing pictures of Baruch with his friends on a picnic, hiking in India and in the army. He is smiling in most of the pictures. He was happy, she says, loved by his friends and classmates. She never worried about him, because he was so strong -- until the sickness came.

'It Breaks My Heart'

"Stop! I don't want to think about it," Julia screams. "It breaks my heart!" Her husband Vladimir, sitting in front of the computer, winces. Julia starts to wash dishes.

They cared for their son here for two years. His room on the second floor is still unchanged. The motorcycle jacket Vladimir bought Baruch when his son's condition temporarily improved is still hanging there, unused. They have kept Baruch's last message, smeared with blood. When blood began to gush out of his mouth, just before he fainted, he wrote in Russian, his native tongue: "I love you. Thanks for everything. Do not be afraid." They found him lying on the floor.

Julia doesn't enter the room anymore. The pain is imprinted on her face. And although she doesn't want to talk about her son anymore, she does want to talk about the procedure. She says she sees herself as an ambassador for all those who have lost the most valuable thing in life. "There is no substitute," she says.

It was clear to her from the beginning that she wanted a grandchild. It took seven years to get there, seven years of valuable time lost. "Why do we have to die with our children?" she asks. "What business does the government have intervening between the uterus and sperm?"

Without family law attorney Irit Rosenblum, Shira and the other children who were conceived postmortem would most likely not have been born. Rosenblum fought against the Israeli state for their existence. The former divorce lawyer sits in her office near the upscale Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. "I've ruined families and lives," she says, with a hint of self-loathing in her voice.

After leaving divorce law, she founded an organization called New Family, which marked the beginning of her "revolution." Now she sees it as her mission to create families, including socially unconventional ones. Rosenblum has campaigned for the rights of single parents, and of lesbians and gays, and she developed a form of civil marriage allowing for an official partnership between Jews and non-Jews. In a country where rabbis have the sole sovereignty to marry Jewish Israelis exclusively to other Jews, it was an act of resistance.

Rosenblum has straightened hair and wears bright red glasses. She talks fast. Her time is valuable. In 2001, she looked into modern reproductive technology and concluded that every human being must have the right to offspring, and that no one could deprive anyone else of this freedom. That would be selection, she says. The ringtone on her mobile phone is the theme from "Mission: Impossible."

In Israel, a country that still feels threatened in its very existence, having children is seen as being a kind of a civic duty. It is a nation where people feel closer to death than in Europe, and where offspring are therefore also considered more important. Israel has the highest birth rate among the world's industrialized countries. Even singles and homosexuals are now expressly encouraged to have children.

In-vitro fertilization (IVF) is common practice and paid for by the government. Even the ultra-orthodox use it. In the Jewish faith, personhood begins with birth, not with fertilization. As a result, the method presents no problems from a theological point of view. "Be fruitful and multiply," Genesis, Chapter 9, Verse 7. It doesn't matter how.

Rosenblum began to fight for her idea of immortality. She developed the biological will and called upon the army to set up a sperm bank. She also took on the case of the soldier who was shot dead in Gaza, whose sperm was harvested posthumously. She is often contacted by mourning parents.

"Love Beyond Death" is the title of a chapter in her book, "In God's Garden." In it, she writes about her encounter with the widower Uri, who wanted to bring a baby into the world with his wife Michal's frozen embryos. She flew abroad with the client and the embryos, just 24 hours before the Israeli government banned the export of ova. "I create people," she says. "I implement life." As a result, she went from being the heroine of human rights organizations to a hated figure.

"They accuse me of crossing a line and say I should accept the finiteness of life?" asks Rosenblum, raising her eyebrows. "But I see it differently. We don't have to limit our imagination and creativity."

After Baruch's death, the only thing keeping Julia Pozniansky alive was the hope of his grandchild being born. After studying physics and mathematics in the Soviet Union, she had given up her career for the family. The Poznianskys emigrated to Israel when Baruch was a child.

"We no longer felt safe after the collapse of the Soviet Union," she says. The economic situation was disastrous and there was a resurgence of anti-Semitism. "Karl Marx was suddenly the evil Jew and Lenin the evil half-Jew," she says. They began to feel afraid. "The memories flow in our veins. It's a genetically transmitted fear." But she says she loved Israel from the very first moment.

But then they, of all people, suffered the greatest possible misfortune, Baruch's illness. When he was in his final stage, the family heard about Rosenblum's organization on television. On Nov. 4, 2008, three days before his death, Baruch signed the biological will, bequeathing his genetic material to his parents and authorizing them to find a mother for his child.

Finding a Mother

Julia didn't waste any time. With Rosenblum's help, she placed an ad searching for a mother for her grandchild. Hundreds of people responded. Then came something like a casting call. Julia had two criteria: The woman had to be Jewish and willing to undergo in-vitro fertilization, because the amount of available sperm was limited. She also met with lesbians.

"Of course, I would have liked to have had a 25-year-old," she says, "but they weren't applying." There were about 20 women in total, but most of them wanted to first try it without hormone treatment. Finally, she met a Russian woman who agreed to in-vitro fertilization. A contract was drawn up. It regulated the grandparents' visitation rights and stated that the wife and child could not assert any financial claims against the Poznianskys. The case went to trial, with the Poznianskys and the potential mother demanding that the government release Baruch's sperm.

Julia and Vladimir had to talk to a social worker. "But what if the relationship with the mother doesn't work out?" the social worker asked the Poznianskys. "Do you realize that you're just grandparents?"

"What if your son brings home some bitch who won't let you have contact with your grandchildren?" Julia replied. "Anything can happen."

Julia told the social worker that her questions were ridiculous, that, in this case, the child was absolutely planned for and wanted.

"Do you want to play God? Decide whether a child is allowed to live?" she asked the social worker.

The Poznianskys won. Judge Hadas Goldkorn based her verdict on the fact that Baruch had left behind a will clearly expressing his desire for a child. The case became a precedent.

Three days later, the Poznianskys received a call from Rosenblum. The potential mother had changed her mind. She had found a partner.

Julia fell into a black hole, unable to sleep or get up. "Maybe God doesn't want us to have a child," she told Rosenblum.

"Stop thinking like that," Rosenblum said.

Within three weeks, the lawyer found another woman for the Poznianskys. She was in her late thirties and "of European origin." The judge changed the name in the verdict. A total of seven IVF attempts failed in the following months. The woman didn't have much time left to bear children; she needed higher quality material. The Poznianskys had only a limited amount of sperm from a sick person. They amicably parted ways with the woman.

Julia then became a mother herself, at the age of 55, through a donor egg. But she still wanted a child to be fathered by Baruch.

On a cool day in January 2013, Julia and Vladimir Pozniansky had an appointment with a young woman at a shopping mall in the coastal town of Netanya. They had brought along their photo album with pictures of Baruch. Liat Malta was wearing a red coat that highlighted her black hair. Her eyes were almond-shaped. She was 35, came from a Moroccan family and worked as a kindergarten teacher. "She was slim, educated, beautiful and smart. She was perfect," says Julia.

Two months later, they signed a contract. The case went to court again. Liat was cleared to start hormone treatment a year later.

But her fertility was a problem. The doctors were only able to harvest a single egg from her. The first attempt failed. After another hormone treatment, the doctors once again recovered only one egg. But then a miracle happened, and Liat became pregnant.

"I loved her," says Julia.

'Death Is Not the End'

On Israeli Holocaust Memorial Day in 2016, a sunny January day, Irit Rosenblum is waiting to give a speech at a lawyers' conference in Colorado. Her husband has accompanied her to Denver, while their three children have stayed at home.

Rosenblum is wearing black. She walks onto the stage and begins speaking: "I was late in asking myself why I was doing all this." She pauses for a moment. "The Nazis killed my family, my aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. They wanted to wipe out my generation, my family, our entire existence. But they didn't succeed!"

She carries this experience around with her, somewhere in the back of her mind. "That too makes me understand the whole meaning of human existence."

The freedom to continue to exist is an ethical and existential imperative, she says, as is the possibility to create life after death, and to live on in the body of someone else.

"Death is not the end."

Most people want children, she says. "It is a fundamental part of the quest for survival." The audience applauds, but when Rosenblum returns to her seat, she is followed by irritated looks. It is a conference for lawyers specializing in adoptive law, representatives of an "old system," as Rosenblum puts it. She's sitting in the lobby with a glass of water, looking tired but full of energy.

"The system is completely overwhelmed," she says. "You see, we have millions of eggs, sperm and embryos. We have the technology, we have the interests and we have the material." To withhold these possibilities from needy people is immoral, she says, and so is using them without restrictions.

The world still thinks you can ignore reality, she says. But that's wrong. We are living in a world of business, she argues, a global market driven by interests, and these interests can also be feelings. The movement cannot be stopped, says Rosenblum, "I'm just speaking out."

Because poorer countries rarely care about human rights charters, she says, reprehensible things are happening. She mentions a well-known case in Thailand, where an Australian couple had twins through a surrogate mother. The girl was healthy, but the boy had Down's syndrome. The disabled baby was left behind in Thailand.

"You see, I'm not creating the jungle," says Rosenblum. "That's the jungle out there. I want to create order."

Shira Malka, now two years old, is hopping around in front of the TV in the living room in Ashkelon, north of the Gaza Strip. She laughs and points to the screen, where a singing, bright yellow chick is dancing through the landscape. The little girl, born with black hair, is now blonde and getting blonder.

"She looks like me," says Julia Pozniansky, kissing the little girl on the cheek, "and she's always cheerful, just like her father." For the first time, Julia looks a bit happier.

'Why Don't We Worship the Inventor of IVF?'

People call her a pervert on the Internet, especially in Russian forums. Even many friends have turned away because they couldn't put up with Julia's pain and her decisions. But she doesn't care. There is nothing wrong with creating a life, she says.

"We worship all these idiots, like Napoleon," she says, "people who brought death to so many," instead of praising those who have given life. About 7 million babies worldwide have been born through IVF. "Why don't we worship the inventor of IVF?"

Liat Malka, the mother, makes coffee and serves chocolate cake. The child's Moroccan extended family has invited itself over once again. It's a delight for Shira, who runs from one person to another, handing out toys.

"I always knew I wanted a child," says Liat, "but it was difficult with the men."

Dating is a tiring affair, she says. She found the right man once, but he lived in the United States and she was unwilling to leave Israel, her home. "My sisters and most of my girlfriends are married," she says. "That doesn't make it any easier."

She knew from her sisters that there were several women with premature menopause in the family. So, in her early thirties, she decided to disconnect childbearing from the search for a romantic partner, thinking that he could always come later. She was considering sperm donation. But raising a child with an anonymous father? She thought that would be difficult. "A child wants to know where it comes from."

On YouTube, she came across a TV program broadcast on Channel Two in 2009, in which Julia and Vladimir told their story. Baruch was shown, smiling with his blue eyes, dancing with his friends. It featured footage of him emaciated, staggering through a hospital room with most of his hair gone. Liat liked him.

He seemed so approachable, and so tender with his family. She felt like he was someone she might have fallen in love with if she had met him.

And she saw Julia's pain.

She liked the idea. After all, her child would have a family. She called Rosenblum's organization, New Family.

It wasn't until she was pregnant that she began to have doubts. Was it the right decision? She didn't even know these two people who were suddenly supposed to become part of her life. She'd only met them three times. They were Russian, so different from Liat's Moroccan relatives. Would they get along? She became withdrawn.

Liat's life changed. She got her driver's license and moved in with her mother in Ashkelon. Then she gave birth. The little girl had light skin, light hair and blue eyes. She looked European. Liat was irritated. People on the street thought she was the nanny.

She dreamt of Baruch at night. In her dreams, someone opened the door, and Baruch came into the room to see his child. Another time he appeared and she reached out her hand to him, but he was so big that Liat was unable to reach him.

Sometimes, Liat says, she feels sad that Shira is growing up without her father. She herself had a wonderful father. He also died of cancer, but she was already an adult at the time.

"For Shira, the question about her father is final," she says. "She will never be able to search for him and find him."

In the months after the birth, Liat's relationship with Julia and Vladimir changed -- it intensified. Liat saw how much the Poznianskys loved their granddaughter. They met more often than the every two weeks stipulated in the contract. Liat now spends weekends in the house in Karmiel. She can talk to Julia about anything, she says. Vladimir reminds her of her late father. "They've become family."

There are photos of Baruch in the apartment. Shira takes one in her hands, dances around with it and kisses Baruch's face. She says "Abba, Abba," Hebrew for "Papa."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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