Honey, I Froze the Kids

Israel’s generous subsidies for in-vitro-fertilization (IVF) have earned it the highest per capita rate of IVF procedures in the world, but that generosity may soon overflow. Israeli IVF providers have warned that they may soon be overwhelmed by decades-long buildup of frozen embryos.

Israeli law provides government subsidies for the storage of fertilized embryos for 5 years. Once that limit is up, couples can continue to store them at cost, use them, donate them for medical use, or dispose of them. But only 34 percent of couples make any choice at all, leaving the storage facilities in limbo. Despite 2008 regulations authorizing doctors to dispose of abandoned eggs, they rarely do —citing unofficial health ministry guidance and fears of potential legal action. Most Israeli couples ignore billing requests from clinics, and there is no real effort to make them respond.

According to the Ministry of Health, the lack of action has left over one million frozen embryos to build-up in Israel’s 25 fertility treatment centers—roughly the same number of embryos estimated to be currently frozen in the United States, a country with nearly 35 times the population. Over the past decade, IVF units in Israel spent 1.6 billion shekels (around $457 million) on the liquid nitrogen tanks and electricity required to keep embryos frozen. In 2020, in part to manage these costs, a health ministry advisory council recommended ending IVF subsidies for women over 41 years old.

One potential use for the embryos is donation to childless couples, who generally import eggs from abroad. As Jewish descent is through the mother, some rabbinic authorities consider the offspring of non-Jewish eggs to be gentiles who must undergo conversion. Using embryos from Israeli parents could eliminate that doubt.

While such an option exists in the United States, Canada, Australia, and even Iran, it’s not available to Israeli couples. Even if it were, it would barely make a dent in Israel’s huge—and growing—embryo storage problem.

This article is part of the series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.

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Caleb Harper
Program Coordinator and Research Assistant, Middle East Program

Kobe Spells

Former Intern, Middle East Program