Spotlight on procreation rights as France begins sweeping bioethics debate

Lionel Bonaventure, AFP | People parade with placards reading "assisted medical procreation, Yes" (PMA in French) during a Gay Pride parade in Paris on June 29, 2013.

France on Wednesday kicked off a marathon round of talks designed to inform the country’s legislation on bioethics, with the government hoping to avoid a repeat of the poisonous debate that hijacked the legalisation of same-sex marriage.


The six-month consultation, involving scientists, medical practitioners and legal experts from across France, will lead to a revised bioethics law, slated for later this year. It will touch on a broad range of subjects, from legalizing euthanasia to the development of artificial intelligence. Some of the topics up for discussion represent a political minefield in France, and President Emmanuel Macron will be keen to avoid the pitfalls that crippled his predecessor, François Hollande.

Five years ago, Hollande’s government successfully passed legislation legalising same-sex marriage but was widely seen as having lost the PR battle. While the law enjoyed broad support among the public, it proved to be a bittersweet victory as the bill’s well-organised opponents brought millions of protesters out onto the streets and dominated an often vicious debate.

Opposition to gay marriage has since died down. But hardline Catholic and other conservative groups are counting on other controversial issues, including medically assisted procreation, to revive their movement.

Macron’s government has promised to update France’s laws on assisted procreation, which currently limit the practice to heterosexual couples. The restrictive legislation means single women and lesbian couples with sufficient funds often travel abroad for artificial insemination, while those without the financial means cannot – a situation France’s new gender minister, Marlene Schiappa, says is unjust.

Opinion polls have registered a major shift in public opinion on the matter, with some 60% of French citizens now in favour of allowing single women and lesbian couples to become pregnant with medical help. Macron made a reform of the law conditional on approval by France’s ethics watchdog, the CCNE, which gave its green light last June.

‘What world we want to live in’

The debate over medically assisted procreation – known as PMA in France – is just one of the hot topics on the agenda, and the CCNE’s Jean-François Delfraissy, who will be shepherding the debates, is hoping it won’t monopolise the attention. On Wednesday, Delfraissy stressed the unusually large scope of this year’s debates, hailing a chance to ponder the delicate relationship between societal development and the breathless speed of scientific progress.

“We can’t stop science, and science must progress,” he told France Inter radio before opening the debate. “But science is currently moving too fast with regards to the questions we’re pondering. So now is the time to ask where we want to go, and what world we want to live in tomorrow.”

To answer those questions, the panel of experts will pour over a range of controversial issues including surrogacy, stem cell research, euthanasia, neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Their final report will identify a list of priorities for legislators, though the government will be under no obligation to follow their recommendations.

Some topics, like the issue of surrogacy, which remains illegal in France, are every bit as sensitive as medically assisted procreation. According to a recent Ifop poll, two-thirds of the French now approve the practice, though 46% add “only for medical reasons” – effectively meaning they oppose surrogacy for gay couples. Macron has also voiced opposition to the idea.

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