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With medically-assisted reproduction, Macron enters hot yet manageable water

Ludovic Marin/Pool, Reuters | French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a meeting with Human Rights Defenders at the Élysée Palace in Paris, France, October 29, 2018.

Emmanuel Macron's government will soon present a bill granting medically-assisted reproductive rights to single and lesbian women. The French president aims to avoid replicating his predecessor's strategic errors with same-sex marriage.

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When the French government presents its bioethics bill to Parliament at the end of November they will be delivering on one of Macron’s most symbolic campaign pledges, the hot topic of assisted reproductive technology (known in French as medically-assisted procreation, or PMA).The bill, which would legalise PMA for lesbian couples and single women, is likely to spark a nationwide debate.

Five years after then socialist president François Hollande faced an ever-increasing and well-organised conservative opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, his successor Emmanuel Macron is bent on a more conciliatory approach. “We have to accept the notion that some people oppose such measures,” majority MP Matthieu Orphelin, a staunch supporter of the bill, told FRANCE 24. One of the reasons the government is treading on egg shells is the growing rift within the French population on issues related to sexuality and gender, as well as the added effect of the president’s dwindling popularity.

Mass demonstration against gay marriage in Paris, January 2013
© Benoît Tessier, REUTERS

“The idea is to avoid re-enacting what happened in 2013 and falling into the same trap as our predecessors did," adds Orphelin. "People have forgotten how brutal the atmosphere was at the time, whether it was during the parliamentary debates or in the street demonstrations. I’m confident things will be smoother this time around, if only because Macron’s campaign promise was crystal clear from the get-go.”

Treading on egg shells

Under current French law, IVF (in vitro fertilisation) and artificial insemination are restricted to heterosexuals who've lived together as a couple for over two years. Surrogacy, a highly divisive method of reproduction, is illegal. Single women and lesbian couples who want to freeze their eggs, or undergo other forms of fertility treatment, often decide to seek medical help in neighbouring countries such as Spain or Belgium. This is a process that comes at a hefty financial price.

In addition to giving all women access to PMA, Macron promised to give French birth certificates to children born to a surrogate mother abroad, this while maintaining prohibition of surrogacy in France. Whether or not this will be used as leverage by the parliamentary majority to water down the PMA bill remains to be seen. “I doubt the president will give up on any of the two pledges. It would be going against everything he stood for: actually delivering on what he promised to do," another MP, who didn't want to be named, told FRANCE 24.

Last September, France’s highest bioethics body, the National Consultative Ethics Committee (CCNE), gave its stamp of approval to the contents of the government’s bill. It also reiterated its general hostility to surrogacy and the “commodification of women’s bodies”. During an interview on national television on October 21, Macron’s Minister of Solidarity and Health, Agnès Buzyn, said the CCNE’s view was proof that “PMA for all women” complies with the current state of bioethics. She did, however, voice concerns about the extent to which women would make use of their new rights: “I’m in favour of anything that gives more freedom, but I’d hope that there would be safeguards against every 30-year-old French woman deciding to freeze her eggs in order to have kids at the age of 40," Buzyn told French news channel LCI. In addition, some experts fear that the waiving of sperm-donors’ anonymity - a possible adjunct to the bill - could lead to sperm shortages.

Opponents comparing new-borns to vegetables

Luckily for Macron, however, public opinion has largely evolved over the past few years. In 2013 a majority of the French population was against making PMA available to all women. But recent polls have indicated a surge in support for the measure (numbers range from a 60 to a 75% approval rating). Jérôme Fourquet of polling group IFOP told French daily Le Monde back in January that there was no obvious generational or political gap on the subject. This would presumably prevent any identifiable socio-political fringe from mounting a solid or homogeneous opposition.

The main organisation behind anti-gay marriage protests back in 2013, “La Manif pour tous” (LMPT, or “Protest for all”), is attempting to rally support from several corners of the political landscape, even within the president’s party, but pickings are slim. One of the rare MP’s from La République en Marche opposed to giving all women access to PMA, Agnès Thill, made it clear in French daily Le Figaro that she has no affinity with LMPT. In addition the centre-right party Les Républicains, almost unanimously opposed to same-sex marriage in 2013, has yet to define its position on PMA. A few of its MPs have vocally supported Macron’s bill, an unimaginable move under Hollande’s presidency.

No major demonstration on the scale of what was seen five years ago has been planned. LMPT's recent anti-PMA campaign, in which it compared single-parent newborns to genetically modified vegetables on sale at the supermarket, was met with widespread disapproval. 

In its new anti-PMA campaign, LMPT compares new-borns to vegetables

“The campaign was a disgrace," says Orphelin. "But we have no choice, we have to respect our opponents. And it’s fine that certain MPs in our majority voice their unease with PMA, but they have to bear in mind that they remain a minority.” In order to curtail resistance, the government’s strategy is clear: get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible, while refraining from pigeonholing opponents as outdated relics.

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