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Smuggled sperm allows women to conceive while husbands are behind bars

By Joshua Mitnick • Jul 22, 2016 at 5:00 PM

NABLUS, West Bank — Fathiya Safadi was married less than three weeks when her husband, Ashraf, a wanted Palestinian militant, was arrested, jailed and sentenced to 21 years behind bars in Israel.

Her friends suggested a divorce so she could start over and have a family. Instead, Safadi resigned herself to life without a husband at her side and childless: “I thought, this is my fate. This is my life.”

But her life changed a decade later when, during a prison visit, Safadi’s husband slipped her a candy wrapper and told her to take it straight to a fertility clinic in the West Bank town of Nablus. The wrapper contained his semen and — with the aid of clinic doctors — she became pregnant and gave birth to the couple’s first child, Amir.

The Safadis are among dozens of Palestinian couples who have defied jail terms and conservative social norms to become parents by undergoing in-vitro fertilization treatments with semen smuggled out of Israeli prisons.

Although IVF is rare in the traditionalist society of the Palestinian territories, some have started to embrace the procedure as a way to support the cause of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails, many of whom are considered prisoners of war. For Fathiya Safadi, it is far more personal.

“Even though people feel that having a baby from a prisoner is a patriotic act, I disagree. I consider Amir coming into my life as having saved me from a personal crisis,” she said.

In June, she was back at the Razan fertility clinic in Nablus with 2-year-old Amir climbing on the waiting-room chairs as she nervously awaited another procedure in the hope of expanding her family.

“My life had no meaning before Amir,” she said. “It was difficult.

“Nothing was beautiful in my eyes. I was insecure.”

In the nearly four years since the first IVF birth to a prisoner’s wife, about 50 Palestinian children have been born using the treatment, said Dr. Salem Abu Khaizaran, director of the Razan Medical Center, which pioneered treatments in the West Bank.

Abu Khaizaran said that wives of prisoners began inquiring about the fertility treatments as far back as 2003, but that he was initially skeptical that it would gain traction in Palestinian society.

“We were reluctant to do it because we were worried that the community will not accept such treatment,” he said. “We are a small society, and if people suddenly saw a woman pregnant whose husband is in jail, they might start accusing her of cheating.”

To offset social backlash, the Razan center instructed treatment candidates to bring two representatives from each side of the family to vouch for the woman. The prisoners’ wives won religious support for the procedure from a fatwa issued by the Palestinian Authority’s religious council, which deemed the treatment acceptable if it was for a husband and wife.

Though IVF treatments — which cost about $3,000 — are not covered by the Palestinian public medical plans, unlike in Israel, the Razan center offers such procedures free of charge for the wives of prisoners.

About 6,000 Palestinians are in Israeli jails, many of them sentenced for involvement in violence against Israelis that includes stone throwing and bus bombings.

Family members said Ashraf Safadi was wanted by Israeli forces for involvement in a Palestinian uprising against Israel, and in 2004 he was sentenced to 21 years in jail for shooting at Israelis. Among Palestinians, inmates like him are considered a cause celebre.

“It’s considered a national mission and a national achievement,” said Zaid Nasser, a doctor at the clinic. “This is helping the prisoners.

“They get hope from the fact that they’ll have a family waiting for them” when they get out of jail, he said.

Though Israeli prisoners are allowed conjugal visits — most notably for Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 — they are not permitted for Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

So Palestinian prisoners have become creative.

Holding up a plastic pen and a pitted date, Nasser demonstrated some of the improvised containers used to smuggle seminal fluid out of prisons. The sperm can survive for up to 48 hours before it needs to be frozen, said Nasser, whose clinic now is treating about five women pregnant with the children of prisoners.

The Israel Prison Service did not respond to a request for comment.

As Safadi caressed Amir’s tiny knuckles with her thumb in the waiting room, she recalled feeling a moment of “liberation” for her husband when she found out she was pregnant. But she also described a sort of personal liberation. Having a child suddenly conferred on her social status: She moved from her family’s home to an apartment set up by her in-laws.

“My in-laws were extremely happy with Amir. Before I had no place in their family. I didn’t feel like I fit in,” she said. “Socially I changed, personally I changed, and people started looking at me differently.”

The fertility center provides the IVF treatments for free as a “humanitarian” gesture to the wives of prisoners who might miss the opportunity to get pregnant before their husbands are released from jail, said Abu Khaizaran. The center does not receive any subsidies from the Palestinian government or from political groups, he said.

Although the wife of a prisoner serving a life sentence would be eligible for pro bono treatments, a woman in her mid-20s whose husband is scheduled for release in 10 years would not be eligible. Safadi, who will be in her mid-40s when her husband is released, qualified.

“The reproductive life of a woman is short,” Abu Khaizaran said. “If they are too old, the husband will marry another woman just to have a child.”

Back in the waiting room, it was the turn of Safadi’s brother-in-law, Ali Safadi, to watch Amir after she was called to begin the procedure.

The brother-in-law boasted that it was he who convinced his reluctant brother to try the procedure to preserve the couple’s marriage.

“The personal part of this is that there is part of my brother with us. My brother is home with us,” he said. “I hope more will come, so when Ashraf gets out there will be three or four children.”

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(Mitnick is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.)

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©2016 Los Angeles Times

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