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Puah Institute: Ensuring Kosher Embryos

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

There is a Talmudic saying that "there is a predestined number of people who must be born before the Messiah can come. Therefore, having more children hastens his arrival." According to Rabbi Gideon Weitzman, Machon Puah, the Puah Institute, is doing its part to bring the Messiah by bringing more Jewish children into the world. The Puah Institute, a unique Israeli-based organization has a mission defined by their motto "Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with Halacha". They provide a variety of services for infertile couples.

Rabbi Gideon Weitzman, speaking at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, New Jersey, explained that the Institute is involved in counseling infertile couples, providing halakhic consultation and information to the medical community, and supervision of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) procedures.

Although most IVF labs are reputable and try to be meticulous in keeping track of the sperm, eggs and embryos of each couple, over the years some mistakes have been made. Since all eggs and embryos look alike, scrupulous attention to labeling test tubes and petri dishes, and careful record keeping are of paramount importance.

In a recent case, a white woman who participated in IVF gave birth to two boys, one white and one black. The black one turned out to be the biological son of a black couple who were having IVF at the same time and in the same clinic as the other couple. Apparently, some of the embryos from the black couple were implanted into the white mother's uterus. After a protracted lawsuit, the black baby boy was returned to his genetic parents, and despite desperate protests by the white couple, who had developed emotional bonds to the child, all legal ties to the white mother - the birth mother - were severed. That case is an example of a situation where an embryo mixup could be readily discerned because of the difference in race of the two couples. Based on this and other cases, it is reasonable to assume that other errors in IVF labs may go undetected; and other parents may be carrying and delivering babies who are not their genetic offspring.

Since parental origin is of vital concern from a religious perspective, some Orthodox rabbis recommend the use of trained supervisors during IVF procedures involving Jewish couples. The Puah Institute trains religious women in Israel to be mashgikhot, or supervisors for many IVF programs.

The Institutes' name is derived from the Biblical midwives, Shifrah and Puah who were ordered by the Egyptian Pharaoh to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrews. The two women did not comply and, the Midrash explains, were rewarded for this by a subsequent population explosion in the Israelite camp (Exodus 1:15-21). According to the Talmud (Sotah 11b), Shifrah and Puah were pseudonyms for Yocheved and Miriam, mother and sister of Moses, respectively.

The female supervisors, trained by Puah Institute, accompany the sperm and egg, and ensure that sperm, eggs and embryos are meticulously inventoried and tracked. In the past five years alone, reports the institute's Rabbi Gideon Weitzman, the mashgikhot discovered and prevented eighteen errors, where the egg was going to be put back into the wrong woman. And when the Puah Institute began its services in a hospital in France, the mashgikhot discovered - and prevented - a mixup on the very first day of supervision.

Currently, the Puah Institute offers supervisory service at dozens of hospitals in Israel as well as a clinic in Paris, Boca Raton Hospital in Florida and several hospitals in New York. New York hospitals include New York Hospital- Cornell Medical Center, Maimonides Hospital and Einstein Medical Center. Israeli couples pay only a token fee for this service. In the U.S., the service of a mashgikha can run several hundred dollars.

Rabbi Weitzman explained that in Israel, The Puah Institute is the one main group involved in IVF supervision, and "everybody accepts it." He asserted that it is very important for different religious factions to accept a single system of supervision. Weitzman continued, "Rav Burstein, fiercely defends that it should not be like it is in kashrus, where there's Rabbanut and Bidatz and there's Belz..." Rabbi Menachem Burstein, the Institute's founder was concerned that all IVF children should be considered "kosher" in terms of parentage. In Kashrut supervision of food there are many different authorities, even among the ultra-Orthodox, and people who use one authority might reject the Kosher supervision of food by another authority.

Weitzman explained why there's only one system of IVF supervision rather than separate authorities. "It shouldn't be that in fifteen year's time a child cannot marry another child because he's only Bedatz and she's Shaaris," he said, referring to ultra-Orthodox religious factions. "It's very important that it should be the same all over the world...The standards that are set by the Machon Puah in Israel should also be set in France and England and America..."

Rabbi Menachem Burstein founded the Institute over ten years ago. Since then, seven rabbis have been trained to do counseling and consult with the medical community. According to Puah Institute brochures, "they advise and guide the more than 100 couples that turn to Puah for help daily. They provide these services in Hebrew, English, French, Spanish and Yiddish." Over fifty Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) women have been trained by the institute to serve as mashgikhot (only females serve in that capacity since most of the IVF procedures involve procedures performed on the woman).

In the dozens of hospitals served by Puah Institute, supervision of IVF procedures can be arranged by couples who desire it. And it's not only religious couples who seek this type of supervision. Less religious, and ever non-Jewish couples have also expressed interest in the service, hoping to ensure that the baby they carry is truly their own.

The Puah Institute can be reached at Azriel Street 19, Jerusalem (Tel. 02-6515050, e-mail: Puah Institute USA is based at 90 Laurel Hill Terrace, #6G, New York, NY 10033 (Tel. 212-781-9738, e-mail:

© 2001 Miryam Z. Wahrman


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