The Islamically Correct Test-Tube Baby

For infertile Muslim couples, in vitro fertilization using their own gametes is OK; surrogacy and sperm donation are not.

Reprinted from the May 2004 issue of Science & Theology News. Used with permission.

Though the President's Council on Bioethics is just beginning to reevaluate infertility techniques in the United States, scientists and clerics in the Middle East have been on top of the issue ever since the first "test-tube" baby was born 25 years ago.

At the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle, Marcia Inhorn, a medical anthropologist from the University of Michigan, described how, in Middle Eastern countries, religious edicts (fatwas) rule the reproductive lives of Shiite and Sunni Muslim couples who, she said, literally want to make their "test-tube babies in a religiously correct fashion."

In the conference's topical lecture series, Inhorn, also the director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, discussed how Islamic religious beliefs strictly outline reproductive dos and don'ts, especially when it comes to in vitro fertilization, or IVF.

Not long after the birth of Louise Brown, the first baby born using IVF technology, the Grand Sheikh of Egypt's Al-Azhar University issued the first fatwa concerning assisted reproductive technology. Inhorn said the fatwa issued in 1980 "has proved to be truly authoritative and enduring in all its main points for most of the Middle Eastern region."


Dr. Gamal Serour, joint founder of Egypt's first IVF clinic that opened in 1986, outlined the importance of infertility techniques in an e-mail. "This technology has been so integral in the Middle East," he wrote. "Procreation and continuity of human life is considered of great importance to the people living in the area."

However, the technology was strictly regulated. Essentially, Inhorn said in an interview, the fatwa stated: "IVF was OK to do as long as you were using gametes from husband and wife and the embryos were transferred back to the same wife."

Anything outside of using sperm or egg from an infertile couple, like surrogacy or sperm donation, said Inhorn is haram, or sinful, and tantamount to zina, or adultery, strictly forbidden in Islam.

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Julia C. Keller
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