Through my reporting on my recent story about “halachic infertility,” I had some frank, and often personal, conversations with rabbis, doctors, and ultra-Orthodox women about Jewish law, medicine, menstruation, and sex.
But the phone interview that made my coworkers raise their eyebrows the most was the one I conducted with Mark McGlothlin, the San Diego-based condom manufacturer whose prophylactics are favored by ultra-Orthodox families with fertility problems.
Orthodox women who are “halachically infertile” cannot conceive because they adhere to Jewish laws about when they can and can’t have sex with their husbands. These women abstain from sex for five days during their periods and then another seven additional days, after which they visit a mikveh, or ritual bath, and rejoin their husbands. Most Orthodox women have no trouble getting pregnant with these restrictions—as evidenced by the high Orthodox fertility rates.
But for women with shorter cycles, ovulation occurs before they go to the mikveh, and they can’t conceive. Even though they’re technically healthy, Jewish law has rendered these women “halachically infertile.”
According to the doctors I spoke with, ultra-Orthodox rabbis almost never give “halachically infertile” women a dispensation to visit the mikveh early. Instead, the doctors prescribe these women hormones to shift their cycles so that they can get pregnant without violating religious law. But for women who are hormone averse, there’s another option: pre-mikveh artificial insemination.
For secular couples, obtaining a sperm sample for artificial insemination is as easy as, well, you know what. But ultra-Orthodox men aren’t allowed to masturbate. Instead, the man dons a non-spermicidal condom when he has sex with his wife, and then brings the sample to the fertility clinic. When the woman reaches peak fertility, the doctor inseminates her with her husband’s sperm. Some couples poke a hole in the condom before they have sex, a symbolic act that the sperm is not actually going to waste.
Mark McGlothin’s company, Apex Medical Technologies, Inc. supplies medical grade polyurethane condoms to hundreds of fertility clinics—including a handful of Jewish ones—across the United States. McGlothin and his wife got started in the condom business in the 1980s at the start of the AIDS crisis when McGlothin set out to create a plastic condom that would be more durable than the poorer-quality latex rubbers available on the market.
In the process of engineering the super-durable condom, McGlothin came up with a thinner, non-spermicidal prophylactic that is “non-irritating to the lady,” in his words. This condom quickly became popular with infertile couples who need sperm samples but for whatever reason — religious or non — are uncomfortable with male masturbation. Citing studies, McGlothin also claims sperm samples obtained through sex tend to be more viable than those obtained via masturbation.
McGlothin sells his condoms alone or accompanied by a plastic funnel and a vial for safe transport to the fertility clinic in the Hy-Gene Seminal Fluid Kit. (The kits are available at Genesis Fertility and Reproductive Medicine, the South Brooklyn clinic that sees many “halachically infertile” women.)
McGlothin said that his religious clients tend to be Jewish, Muslim, or Roman Catholic. While he has never heard of Jews poking holes in condoms as a gesture to show they are not wasting seed, he said that it comes up on occasion with Catholics for the same reason. “A small pinhole at the opening doesn’t make any difference,” he told me. “It’s to preserve the “theoretical possibility that pregnancy can take place.”
“We can’t go out and recommend to people put a hole in these things,” he continued. “We have heard people do and there is nothing we can do to stop them.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
The Halachic Condom