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France could ease its strict fertility laws

June 28, 2021

France is poised to lift tight restrictions on medically assisted reproduction, making it easier for thousands of single and lesbian women who until how have faced an uphill battle to have children.

A woman reads a book with a child
Benedicte Blanchet, who is single, was forced to go abroad to have her son Esteban through IVF treatment using donor spermImage: Sonia Phalnikar/DW

France could ease fertility laws

When Benedicte Blanchet, a 40-year-old who lives in a Paris suburb, decided that she wanted to have a child on her own and not wait to meet the right man, nothing prepared her for the costly obstacle course that was to follow.

Under existing laws in France, which are among the strictest in western Europe, only heterosexual couples who are married or have been living together for at least two years and have difficulties conceiving a child, are given access to medically assisted reproduction, such as sperm donation or in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments.

"It's really hard. Since the French government won't let you do it, you have to move mountains to have a baby as a single woman," Blanchet, a freelance project manager, told DW. "It's unfair and discriminatory."

Crossing borders to conceive

Blanchet had to find a gynecologist in France to carry out medical exams and prescribe fertility drugs, something that's a legal gray zone. She also had to lie about having a male partner.

She then went to Denmark for two rounds of artificial insemination, which weren't successful. To curb rising costs, Blanchet found a fertility clinic in Portugal for IVF. She had to use sperm from an anonymous donor, in line with the country's laws back then, even though she wanted an open donor. The whole process cost €15,000 ($18,000), forcing her to take out a loan.

woman with child in garden
Benedicte Blanchet says she's open with her son, Esteban, about how he was conceivedImage: Sonia Phalnikar/DW

Blanchet was fortunate; the IVF in Portugal worked and she gave birth to a baby boy, Esteban. That was nearly three years ago.

"Having a child made the whole difficult journey really worth it for me," Blanchet said, adding that she's open with Esteban about how he was conceived.

"But it's still hard because it's rubbed in your face that a child has to have a mother and a father," Blanchet said. "I don't agree. My family is just as legitimate as any other, it's just a different kind of family."

Risky obstacle course

Like Blanchet, thousands of single and lesbian women are unable to access fertility treatment in France. Gynecologists risk prison and penalties if they help them with procedures such as artificial insemination or IVF.

Women who can afford it go to fertility clinics in European countries such as Belgium, Britain, Spain and Denmark, where the procedures are available.

Others try to illegally secure sperm donations through unregulated online networks, which experts say can pose health risks because the sperm may not be screened for diseases.

Women who use these websites have spoken of harassment, with some donors insisting on "natural sperm donation" — in other words, sex.  Some also have to reckon with the possibility that the donor might decide to claim fatherhood, or even custody.

In same-sex couples, only one of the partners is recognized legally. The other has to adopt their child through a lengthy process.

France to change course

All that may change. After years of debate, French lawmakers are set to pass a bioethics bill that would, among other things, extend medically assisted reproduction paid for by the health service to all women under the age of 43, regardless of their marital status and sexual orientation.

Young demonstrators at a rally in Paris
A recent rally of LGBTQ groups in Paris pushed for medically assisted procreation for allImage: Sonia Phalnikar/DW

"I'm lesbian and I'm thrilled that that this bill may finally grant us some equality with heterosexual people," Natalie, who didn't want to give her full name, told DW at a recent demonstration of LGBTQ groups in Paris. "My dream is to have a child of my own, and so far it's been out of reach because I'm not rich enough to go abroad to do IVF."

Others say the law, a campaign pledge of President Emmanuel Macron's, is long overdue and will finally bring France in line with some of its European neighbors.

"We are very late and out of touch with reality on this issue," Daniele Obono, a member of parliament for the left-wing opposition party La France Insoumise, told DW.

The government estimates that a quarter of all French families are already headed by a single parent, nearly always the mother.

"France should have passed this bill much earlier, when gay marriage was legalized back in 2013. Those were the demands of the LGBTQ movement, too," Obono said.

At the time, months of at times violent mass street protests by conservative opponents of same-sex marriage and Catholic groups led the government of Francois Hollande to stall the bill.

This time, Obono said the government had shown more resolve despite demonstrations by conservative groups who say the bill would lead to a surge in "fatherless" children. But, she added, the legislation still didn't go far enough.

A woman with a mask with a microphone in her hand
Opposition lawmaker Obono criticized the draft bill for not including transgender peopleImage: Sonia Phalnikar/DW

"Though it is a significant moment, it also leaves a bitter taste in the mouth because the government in its draft version of the bill excluded transgender people from accessing medically assisted procreation," Obono said. "So there's still a way to go if we want equality for all."

Lack of sperm donors the biggest hurdle

Once the law is adopted, France's government anticipates an increase in demand for IVF procedures, with an extra 2,000 women annually registering for treatment.

The biggest obstacle for them is likely to be a shortage of sperm donors. Right now, even heterosexual couples face a long wait, sometimes more than a year, before they can attempt IVF.

The bill would also end anonymity for sperm donors, who would have to agree to have their identities revealed should their children ask to know their biological fathers when they turn 18. Many believe that could further exacerbate the problem at France's sperm banks.

"We forecast a drop in eggs and sperm donors, at least in the short term, since some registered male and female donors could deny clinics the use of their sperm and eggs because they don't want to reveal their identity," said Nicolas Faget, the spokesman of APGL, a group representing homosexual parents.

"It's difficult to say how long this instability will last," Faget said. "New donors will need to be recruited. It will be a totally new situation."

Despite the uncertainty, Blanchet, who volunteers at Mam'en Solo, an organization that campaigns for the rights of single mothers, said the bill is a big step in the right direction.

"The most important thing about this legislation is that it allows all women to choose for themselves if they want to have a child and how they want to have it," Blanchet said. "It's about respecting their individual choice."