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France debates controversial bill to extend IVF to lesbian couples and single women

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A poster promoting medical assistance for procreation is displayed in the lobby of the Laboratory of Reproductive Biology CECOS of Tenon Hospital in Paris, France
A poster promoting medical assistance for procreation is displayed in the lobby of the Laboratory of Reproductive Biology CECOS of Tenon Hospital in Paris, France -
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French MPs will today (Tuesday) begin examining a controversial bioethics bill which includes provisions for extending medically assisted procreation — which includes in vitro fertilisation (IVF) — to lesbian couples and single women.

The health, justice and research ministers will address the French parliament at 4:30 pm CEST to defend the bill, considered as a landmark societal reform of Emmanuel Macron's presidency.

The reform, a long-standing campaign pledge, was delayed while anti-government “yellow vest” protests rocked the country.

Euronews explains what the bill is about and its implications in a European context.

What's in the bill?

Under current legislation, only heterosexual women with fertility problems have access to medically assisted fertility techniques in France, including sperm donation and in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

The bill examined today provides for public funds to cover the full cost of IVF for lesbians and single women, as it does for heterosexual couples. The government anticipates an additional 2,000 IVF requests on top of the roughly 150,000 IVF attempts made each year.

While IVF is the most controversial part, the bill also allows women to freeze their eggs for reasons other than medical to enhance their chances of having children.

Surrogate pregnancies will remain banned, however, with the government deeming the issue too incendiary. “It would have raised the issue of the commercialisation of women’s bodies,” Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said earlier this year.

The bill also ends anonymity for sperm donors, who will have to agree to have their identity revealed if their children ask to know their biological father when they turn 18.

The reform furthermore addresses other sensitive bioethics issues surrounding stem cell research and donor organs.

Why is it so controversial?

While medically assisted reproduction is widely available to all women in countries such as Britain, Belgium and Spain, it is a controversial matter in France.

Only six years ago, former President Francois Hollande’s legislation allowing gay marriage faced strong opposition in a country where the influence of the Catholic Church was thought to have been in decline.

The same groups that opposed gay marriage back in 2013 will take to the streets again on October 6 for nationwide protests against the bioethics bill.

"We are going to decide voluntarily to completely deprive children of their fathers," gasped Alberic Dumont, vice-president of La Manif Pour Tous, the group organizing the protests.

Speaking to RTL Radio, far-right leader Marine Le Pen said: "The state is going to lie to children by telling them on birth registers - you were born of two mothers. This lie is untenable."

Her Rassemblement National party has requested a referendum on the bill.

Even the French Academy of Medicine expressed reservations on the bill on Saturday.

"The deliberate notion of a child deprived of a father represents a major anthropological breaking point," the Academy said, adding that it was "not without risks" for the child's psychological development.

Health Minister Agnes Buzyn called the Academy's opinion "outdated" and recalled that about a quarter of French children currently live in one-parent families.

“All the studies show children born to gay couples or raised by single women have no particular difficulties,” she told reporters last summer.

Current debates in France also reflect a broader resistance to the commercialization of the fertility industry, in a country viscerally attached to its generous public health care system.

Within Macron's La Republique en Marche's party, some MPs have expressed reservations about the text. They will be allowed a free rather than a party-line vote.

Yet with Macron’s centrist party commanding a strong majority, the bill is nonetheless expected to pass.

How does France compare with other EU countries when it comes to procreation rights?

When it comes to procreation rights, EU legislation is a "patchwork," in the words of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE).

Each country has its own medical legislation governing matters such as IVF, eggs freezing and surrogate pregnancies, with wide disparities from country to country.

IVF

When it comes to IVF, many countries authorize the procedure only for heterosexual couples, including Italy, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Lituania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

But other countries have more progressive legislation.

In Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom or Sweden, all women are entitled to IVF (including lesbian couples and single women) provided they are in the "natural reproductive age".

Austria authorizes IVF for lesbian couples, but not for single women. Meanwhile, in countries such as Greece, Estonia, Bulgaria and Slovenia, it's the other way around.

Surrogate pregnancies

An ESHRE study conducted in 2017 said the following EU countries banned surrogacy: Austria, Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden.

Eggs freezing

Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and the UK are among the EU countries currently permitting eggs freezing to all women, including for non-medical reasons.