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Sperm smuggling and fatherhood from behind bars

10 September 2012
Appeared in BioNews 672
The recent news reports that Ammar Zibden, a Palestinian imprisoned in Israel, has managed to smuggle his sperm out of prison (reported in BioNews 670) and become a father highlight a number of problematic issues.

Do prisoners retain the right to reproduce when in prison? Many people would argue that Ammar Zibden's convictions for murder and terrorism offences make him unsuitable for parenthood. No such judgments are made of most other potential parents, even though some may be judged similarly. Making calls on who should and should not become a parent can lead to arguments based upon eugenic principles.

One major concern of prison authorities and courts in the past has been consideration for the welfare of any child born to the prisoner and their partner. Parenting from prison can be problematic. Prison prevents the majority of prisoners from living with their children, so they would be raising their children from a distance. Prisoner parents, unless they are kept in a specialised unit for parents and babies, are physically isolated from their children.

How involved can these prisoners be as parents when they are not there to make everyday parenting decisions or take their children to school? Some commentators say that single parent families and non-resident parents are common, and that being a prisoner parent is similar to these existing situations. In some prisons, contact can be maintained through visits, phone calls and letters, which allow family members and prisoners to maintain some kind of a relationship. The extremely restricted contact that Ammar Zibden has with his family will make it very difficult for him to take on an active role as the child's father.

In the Dickson and Mellor cases, the UK courts viewed access to artificial insemination facilities as a privilege. Loss of procreative freedom was seen as an accepted consequence of entering prison (1). However, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) took a different view, stating that reproductive freedom is not automatically lost when a person is imprisoned (2). The stance of the ECtHR is justified, as imprisonment itself is the punishment, which does not explicitly include the removal of the ability to have children.

Although many commentators argue that there is some justification in restricting the rights of a prisoner, there are no such justifications for restricting the ability of a free person to have a child. The partners of prisoners, because of their relationship with a prisoner, suffer restrictions on their right to have a child with their partner. Dallal Zibden has not seen her husband since his arrest in 1998. This is the result of restrictive visiting rules and the political situation, and it demonstrates how much imprisonment can affect the relationships between prisoners and their families.

Israel itself is a pro-natalist country, supporting and publically funding IVF treatment for all of its female citizens (3, 4). Each woman is allowed almost unlimited state funding for fertility treatment until they have two children. It also allows some prisoners the right to become parents.

Yigal Amir, who was convicted of assassinating the former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was granted a ten hour private visit with his wife, after which she became pregnant. This was following Amir's unsuccessful attempt to smuggle sperm out of the prison. It is extremely unlikely that this kind of private visit would be granted to the Zibdens, considering what the political implications could be if a Palestinian prisoner was allowed conjugal visits.

One of the most concerning issues arising from this birth was the use of sperm sorting to pre-select the sex of the fetus. Sperm sorting was used to divide the X and Y sperm, with the sole purpose of conceiving a baby boy. Sex selection techniques are illegal in the UK unless they are used to prevent sex-linked diseases, but are legal in other countries (see BioNews 671).

Dallal and Ammar Zibden already have two daughters, but wanted a son to carry on their family line. Whilst the Zibdens may argue that they needed a son to 'balance' their family, the desire to 'carry on the family line' also indicates that male children are valued more highly than girls. In this respect, the use of sperm sorting is more troubling than the initial act of sperm smuggling out of the prison.
28 August 2012 - by Rose Palmer 
A Palestinian prisoner has reportedly fathered a son after his sperm was smuggled out of an Israeli prison where he was serving a life sentence....
6 June 2012 - by Dr Ruth Shidlo 
Two weeks ago, the Israeli Ministry of Health published recommendations regarding fertility and birth and its legislation. I applaud this attempt to review and improve upon existing laws and MOH regulations (some of which are not consistent with international commitments) and to codify them...
20 June 2011 - by Dr Mary Yarwood 
The anger generated by the knowledge that in the UK only one prisoner since 2007 has been granted access to artificial insemination (AI) shows there is very little public support for prisoners starting a family while behind bars...
6 June 2011 - by Ben Jones 
A public inquiry has been launched by the UK's Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke after a newspaper's freedom of information request revealed a prisoner was granted permission to provide sperm for use in artificial insemination with his partner while in custody...
12 July 2010 - by Chris Chatterton 
An Australian Supreme Court has allowed a woman to continue with her self-funded IVF treatment, after she was given an 18-month jail term for fraud last November...
Couch racial discrimination in the language of pseudoscience much, BioNews? ( - 11/09/2012)
"It is extremely unlikely that this kind of private visit would be granted to the Zibdens, considering what the political implications could be if a Palestinian prisoner was allowed conjugal visits."

Or, perhaps, considering that Palestinian detainees are subjected to an occupational regime with military laws no Jew will ever face? That one seems more likely to me.

"In this respect, the use of sperm sorting is more troubling than the initial act of sperm smuggling out of the prison."

Actually, I don't think either are as troubling as the apartheid apologetics found right here on this page.
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