The XX Factor

What Do Israel’s Pro-IVF Policies Really Say About the Role of Israeli Women?

AFP/Getty Images

Israel provides in vitro fertilization to all women, regardless of marital status or sexual orientation, up to age 45 for two “take-home” babies. At first glance, it seems like such a woman- and family-friendly policy, and if you ask a woman like Vered Letai-Sever, who had her now 4-month-old son after eight IVF treatments, it’s the most “humane” thing in the world. “It’s something that characterizes life here,” she told the New York Times, “the value placed on life.”

But as forward-thinking as the policy appears (it applies regardless of religious belief, to Arab and Jewish citizens, and is even being increasingly used by single religious women and is sanctioned by their rabbis), some of the cultural beliefs that underlie the state’s generosity don’t sound nearly as supportive of women as individuals. “Anyone who lives here is expected to have children,”  Sigal Gooldin, a Hebrew University medical sociologist who has studied IVF regulation in Israel, said. “In casual conversation you will be asked how many children you have and if you say one, people will ask why only one, and if you say two, why only two?”

Israeli maternity leave is more generous than the little mandated by U.S. law (14 unpaid weeks). Israel does require that employers provide paternity leave of up to six weeks, but it can only be taken six weeks after the child’s birth. If a father decides to take the leave, the mother must cut short her maternity leave, and very few men take advantage of it. Once the child is past the maternity leave stage, at least one Israeli mother, commenting on the Jewish Daily Forward, believes women are “nudged” toward being the primary caregiver. There are “pretty much no childcare options after 4:00,” she writes, “and of course even care from 1:30 [when school lets out]-4 is very expensive, so … working a long day is nearly impossible.”

When you add a society that so expects women to reproduce that socioligists cite it as a given and, child-care concerns that sound similar to those in the U.S., to that “family-friendly” IVF policy, it begins to look less “friendly” and more like an advanced, government-subsidized form of peer pressure. As your mother always said, no real friend would push you into doing something you’re not sure you want to do. The U.S.’s cultural belief that women are responsible for our own reproductive systems (with the one obvious, minority-view exception) and families are responsible for their own children in nearly every way leads us into some backwards policies, like the refusals to fund Planned Parenthood or Head Start in some communities. But in spite of all that’s sometimes said about societal and family pressure on women of reproductive age, it’s impossible to imagine an American sociologist saying we’re “expected to have children.” It’s a silver lining we didn’t even know we had.