Israeli prison officials invited reporters last month on a first-ever tour of the Ofer prison, a concrete-and-barbed wire compound on the northern edge of Jerusalem. More than 700 Palestinians are detained here for alleged security violations in connection with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Security prisoners in Israeli custody have the same rights as inmates on criminal charges when it comes to the number of library books they can borrow, their access to dental and health care, and the right to buy items at the prison canteen. But security prisoners can't use the phone and their family visits are restricted. Immediate family can visit once every two weeks, and conversations take place with glass between the inmate and relatives. Children under 8 are allowed physical contact with the prisoner for just the last 10 minutes of each 45-minute visit.
So when I heard that Palestinian women married to prisoners were sneaking their husbands' sperm out of prison, using it to get pregnant through artificial insemination, I wanted to know how they got the sperm out. Lidia ar-Rimawi did it. She is almost seven months pregnant now and feeling terrific. Besides an easy pregnancy, she is thrilled that she pulled it off.
"We challenged the Israeli authorities," Rimawi told me in the living room of her home in Beit Rima in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. "We challenged the jailer."
Plus, she says, having his wife pregnant with his son has boosted her husband's morale.
But she gives barely a hint about how the sperm was smuggled from prison. She'll only say she carried it out herself and that there was a plastic bag involved.
Rimawi and her husband, Abdel, (sentenced in Israeli court to 25 years on charges of attempted murder) already have a daughter, who was eight months old when her father was arrested. But by they time Abdel is released, Rimawi says they'll be too old to have more children.
She was inspired to try artificial insemination with smuggled sperm when she heard about another Palestinian woman who had successfully done it. That is the only birth so far credited with smuggled sperm, though doctors at the Razan Medical Center in Ramallah, which has donated its services to this effort, say 10 more women are currently pregnant.
The center's Dr. Omar Abdel Deyhem says when the first woman came with this idea they told her she should be sure to publicly declare her plans, so no suspicions would be raised if she became pregnant while her husband was still behind bars.
Muslim religious leaders have issued fatwas in support of smuggling sperm, calling it a new way to protest the Israeli occupation. Sheik Sayed ar-Rimawi, the local religious scholar who approved Lidia's plans, said this is a "very important means of resistance, against an occupation that not only imprisons Palestinians, but also wants to end their ability to reproduce."
Israeli prison officials are skeptical sperm smuggling is actually happening, but they say it would be considered a crime. A spokesperson for the Israeli prison system says the only way to prove it would be DNA testing, something they don't appear to be intent on pursuing at the moment. As I learned speaking to prisoners in Ofer, cell phones do make it in. Prison officials note that visitors are not usually searched on their way out.
Although this seems to be something of a micro-trend among Palestinians, and carries particularly political overtones here, it's not the first place this issue has arisen. More than a decade ago, a U.S. couple successfully sneaked the husband's sperm out of prison and the wife gave birth to a daughter. The couple was caught and prosecuted. The husband is due to be released this fall.
In addition, there is a debate in the U.K. about whether the National Health Service should pay for prisoners to father children from behind bars. This wouldn't involve sneaking sperm out of prison –- the debate there centers on the cost. The European Court of Human Rights says prisoners should be allowed to father children from behind bars, but the U.K. justice minister has vowed to ban the practice.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In prisons around the world, conjugal visits are rarely allowed. But Palestinian women say they're getting around to that by sneaking their husbands' sperm past Israeli prison guards. As NPR's Emily Harris reports, these women see it as an act of resistance.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Lidia ar-Rimawi is almost seven months pregnant. She's feeling great - no morning sickness, no other problems, except that her husband is in Israeli prison. He's serving a 25-year sentence for attempted murder during the Second Intifada. Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody are not allowed conjugal visits. Visitors older than 8 aren't supposed to have any physical contact with the prisoners. Still, Lidia says her husband is the father.
LIDIA AR-RIMAWI: (Through translator) We smuggled the sperms from the prison, but we cannot tell you the detail because we want others to have the same opportunity.
HARRIS: All she'll say is she carried it out of the prison herself, and a plastic bag was involved.
LIDIA AR-RIMAWI: (Through translator) Had we waited, then I would be 50 years old until he comes out, and then it's difficult for us to have babies. I'm very happy with the success of the challenge. We challenged the Israeli authorities. We challenged the jailer. Also, the prisoner in jail feels alive and well again. This will boost his morale.
HARRIS: Lidia is part of a micro-trend happening among wives of Palestinian prisoners, sneaking their husbands' sperm out of jail and getting pregnant through artificial insemination.
Dr. Omar Abdel Deyhem opens the curtains of a patient cubicle and turns on an ultrasound machine. Here at the Razan Medical Center in Ramallah, fertility doctors say they have helped the wives of 10 prisoners get pregnant. Forty more viable semen samples are on ice. The clinic covers all costs for prisoner families. Deyhem says people talked about using artificial insemination to help wives of prisoners when this clinic opened 18 years ago, but the first attempt happened only recently.
DR. OMAR ABDEL DEYHEM: (Through translator) A woman came to us from Nablus who wanted to try this. Her husband was serving a life sentence. We immediately told her she needed to make her intentions public. She was gone six months. When she came back, she had a sample of sperm and had publicly declared her plans.
HARRIS: Her baby was born last August. That public declaration of her intent made this allowable in Islam, says Sheik Sayed ar-Rimawi, a local Muslim scholar. He says each woman also needs six witnesses to verify that the sperm smuggling went as planned.
SAYED AR-RIMAWI: (Through translator) We want to make sure the sperm has not been changed, has not been sold, has not been tampered with. We have to make sure it comes from the intended donor to the medical center. Because in Islam, artificial insemination must be between the husband and the wife.
HARRIS: He fully supports artificial insemination for prisoners' wives.
SAYED AR-RIMAWI: (Through translator) This is a very important means of resistance against an occupation which not only imprisons Palestinians but also wants to end their ability to reproduce.
HARRIS: Israeli officials say sneaking sperm out of prison would be a violation of the rules, but they are skeptical it's actually happening. They say without DNA tests, it's impossible to be sure. A spokesperson for the prison system notes that visitors are not usually searched on the way out. Meanwhile, Lidia Rimawi is eager for her son to be born. Her mother-in-law is too.
SAMIYA AR-RIMAWI: (Foreign language spoken)
HARRIS: Our society encourages having children, says Samiya ar-Rimawi. We are peasants, farmers. We love a big family. And I hope his son will be just like him, she says. The family has already picked a name for the prisoner's son, Majd, meaning glory. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.