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Muslim Couple's Infertility Raises Religious Concerns

Sunday, March 23, 2014

They never questioned not having children, until his wife discovered she had primary ovarian insufficiency, says Khizer Husain in this excerpt from the anthology "Salaam Love." The diagnosis led to an exploration of religiously viable alternatives.

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Credit: mr.urganci on Flickr, under Creative Commons

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(WOMENSENEWS)-- We are in a bright corner office. Outside is the Baltimore skyline. Trees like torches. The air is crisp. We are seated across from Dr. Zacur, who is sketching a portrait on graph paper. Suddenly, he looks up.Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy

"Your ovaries have no eggs."

I snap out of my daydream. Zuleqa is slumped in her chair.

"I never say that someone has no chance of conceiving, but . . ." His voice trails off. The portrait of Zuleqa's condition in his hands is titled "Idiopathic."

He continues, "We could take a donor egg." He looks at Zuleqa. "Do you have a sister?"

Zuleqa nods. I am no Islamic scholar, but I'm pretty sure that my gametes and those of my sister-in-law should not mix. Idiopathic sounds more idiotic and pathetic by the minute.

I am numb and speechless. This was not part of the plan. I stare at Zacur's bowtie. The room suddenly feels like a sauna. Did Zacur just call my wife defective? Can we crack open a window in here? I can't breathe!

Reproductive endocrinologists are optimists. There's always some possibility for fertility. Our fertility probability is 10 percent. Does that mean we have to try 10 times harder to conceive? Is it all moot if there are no eggs? How does he know there are no eggs? Ultrasounds look like WWII–era technology for finding German U-boats. What about my side of the equation: are there legions of healthy swimmers, or a sorry mess incapable of doing the job?

Slim Hope

Zacur stands, signaling that our appointment is at an end. He relates a story of a young patient who had the same diagnosis, primary ovarian insufficiency (POI). He thought she had no chance of conceiving, but she came back 20 years later with a baby in her arms. "That's why I vowed to tell my patients there is hope--but don't bet the farm on it."

I have a lot of questions I cannot articulate. Zuleqa is uncharacteristically quiet. Anyway, our time is over. Another anxious couple waits. I force a smile their way as we make our way out. Good luck--I hope Zacur sketches a happier graph paper portrait for you.

Zuleqa and I courted for about 10 hours over 10 days in the spring of 1999 in Hyderabad, India. She was starting med school. I was on spring break from grad school in London.

"Farawla. Doesn't it sound like a perfect name for a girl?" I offered over strawberry ice cream on our first date at Softy World.

"Of course!" Zuleqa held back a laugh.

I told her about the epiphany I had while studying in Cairo a couple of years earlier--that the Arabic word for strawberry would be the perfect nickname for my first-born daughter. It just sounded right: F-R-W-LA. Delicate, warm, earthy. Based on my brothers' track records, I was destined to have a daughter. The "Y" guys were just too bashful.

We married the following year. We never talked directly about whether we would have children. As with most Muslim couples we knew, having kids was a question of when, not if. We each had three siblings, and parents who came from colossal families. Yet our maternal and paternal clocks didn't dictate our lives. We did not "ooh" and "aah" at the mere sight of babies or have an urge to hold them at dinner parties. Still, the POI diagnosis caught us flat-footed because we'd never not thought of having children. Chapters in our lives that we'd set aside for kids now needed to be replaced. But with what?

Exploring Alternatives

Over the next few months, we talk less about the diagnosis. Other things in life come to the fore. Drama at work. The funeral of a close family friend. The Cherry Blossom Festival. We get into the routine of Zuleqa's new assortment of pills and patches. It's tough enough for a 20-something to keep on regimen. I have no idea how seniors do it. The next time I pick up her meds at the pharmacy, I get a weekly pill dispenser. It's purple. When I give it to her, Zuleqa smiles with her eyes.

"Let's explore adoption," I suggest one evening. It's been a year since our visit with Zacur. Adoption is a tough topic, partly because it implies "giving up" on having biological kids and partly because I know that "Muslims don't adopt." Zuleqa had related the practice of "adoption" in the old country, where people give their own children to those in the family who can't have kids. Years later a teenage girl realizes that the people she had believed to be her parents are actually her biological aunt and uncle. Recipe for resentment, if you ask me.

We attend the Freddie Mac Foundation Adoption Expo in Washington, D.C. It's a happy carnival of smiling faces of children and eager couples. Everyone is incredibly nice; I feel like I did when I attended Apostolic service as a junior high schooler in Iowa with my good friend Curt and his family. Here is the thing--this time around, I want to be converted. I know that adoption can be a great solution, which allows love to flourish. Plus, we know that adoption among American Muslims is needed. Some kid in a bad situation will help us to complete our family. But front and center in my mind is a nagging question: which one of us--Zuleqa or me--will not be able to hug our postpubescent adopted child? Mahrameyat--the concept that you can be physically close to those of the opposite gender only if they are related through blood and marriage--makes adoption unpalatable. I know it's small in the grand scheme of things, but it's a pretty big deal to us.

Other Options

"Khizer, I found this Muslim fertility doctor who practices in the metro area. We should see her. Get a Muslim perspective." Zuleqa spent random evenings on the Internet searching for insight into her rare condition. I was supportive of a second opinion.

I can't get time off work, so Zuleqa flies solo. Not a good idea. Dr. Abbasi turns out to be everything we don't want in a doctor. Listening is not her forte. She plows over Zuleqa's sentences with an "I've heard these stories a million times." Her solution is adamantly pro–egg donation.

Zuleqa asks, "What does Islamic bioethics--."

Abbasi barks, "Look, Zuleqa. I have so many Muslim patients. Do you want to have children or not?"

This was the nadir of the infertility episode. POI is tough--a life sentence of hormone replacement therapy just to be as normal as possible. Falling off the regimen can increase the risk of certain cancers. Zuleqa thought that a Muslim specialist would be an asset, someone who understood our needs and could guide us in this uncharted journey. Abbasi turned out to be a bully. We felt betrayed by one of our own, and that stung.

Abbasi might have found it unremarkable for some donor egg to hook up with my sperm and for that embryo to be transplanted into my wife's womb, but we had tons of questions. For this to work within Shia fiqh, would I need to first marry the donor? I don't want to be the first bigamist in my family, even if it's for a few hours. If the baby is male, would breastfeeding him be sufficient to make him mahram to Zuleqa? And how would we explain this to our child? "Well munnu, half your genes come from this nice lady your mom and I met at the egg bank. So, yes, you have two moms, but not in the same way as Jenny at school . . . "

Excerpted from "," edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

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