MPs debate reform of bioethics law

France debates the rights of unborn children, attempts to cure diseases at conception, and parental rights

1 March 2011

FRANCE'S laws on bioethics are under revision, as the country debates the rights of unborn children, attempts to cure diseases at conception, and the rights and wishes of parents.

Even though the highly emotive subjects of abortion and surrogate mothers are avoided, voting has still been close. The bill just passed first reading by 272 to 216.

The key elements of the bill are:

Research on embryos and stem cells remains banned, unless exceptional permission is granted. A current ban limiting such research to five years would be lifted.

Sperm and egg donors will remain anonymous, even to offspring born from their donations. However, they are allowed to voluntarily reveal their identity if such a request is made. Women who have no children will be allowed to donate, as will men. Woman will also be able to donate eggs to conserve as their own in case they need future help with IVF.

Rapid freezing of eggs, is to be listed as an official process involved in fertility treatment (AMP in French). It is more efficient than the slow-freezing process currently used.

Couples will no longer need to have lived together for two years before they can have access to fertility treatment. Couples who conclude a pacs or marriage will be able to apply for help immediately.

Living organ donations, made between compatible donors owing to a lack of available organs. will be allowed (normally referring to kidneys). The government says such cross-donations will allow an extra 100 to 200 kidney transplants a year.

Donations will be allowed beyond the circle of immediate family (known as paired or altruistic donations) but only along relationships that are described as "direct, stable and established".

People who have received an organ transplant would be protected by the law from discrimination. This would apply to areas such as banks and insurance.

Fertility treatment would be allowed to continue after the death of a father, but with strict rules. The father must already have given his consent to the process and signed up to a project parental, an agreement that the couple will be the legal parents of the child, regardless of its genetic origins.

A prefertilised egg could only be used six months following the death of the father and within a maximum time frame of 18 months. The procedure would need approval from the Agence de la biomedicine.

Genetic tests that search for inherited genes that may lead to certain diseases, or to confirm family relations, would be allowed only in the case of medical or judicial cases. Employers, banks and insurance agencies would be banned from asking for such tests. Pre-natal screening for diseases would still be allowed.

Genetic screening of fertilised eggs will be allowed to continue. Such techniques were behind the recent birth of "saviour sibling" Umut Talha, whose parents already have two children with the inherited genetic blood disorder Beta thalassaemia. They made sure the egg for their third child did not carry the genes, allowing him to be not only diseasefree, but also have tissue cells that can be used to cure both his siblings.

France’s bioethics laws were last revised in 2004 and include a clause that they must be reviewed every five years. The current bill was produced after forums held around the country in 2009.

UMP deputy Paul Jeanneteau said the lack of revolution in the bill was merely an indication of the will in France. "Why change the foundations of our bioethical laws while our society remains attached to the values on which they stand?" he said.

Abortion and surrogacy

Abortion in France has been legal since 1975 and the passing of the loi Veil. The movement to reform or overturn the law is getting louder. The annual "grande marche nationale pour le respect de la vie" in Paris in January drew double the numbers of marchers than the previous year: 40,000 according to organisers, 6,500 according to police.

Marchers this year also received a message from Pope Benedict XVI giving support to the demonstration. About 200,000 abortions are carried out in France every year.

Abortion is open to all women in France and the legal limit is the end of the 12th week of pregnancy.

A campaign group against surrogate mothers took out a letter in February in Le Monde signed by 150 MPs and prominent figures.

The group, No Body for Sale, says all candidates running in the 2012 presidential election should make their position on surrogate mothers clear. Among the supporters are former PM Lionel Jospin, former Socialist Party leader François Hollande and the philosopher Emanuel Hirsch.

Surrogacy turns both the baby and the mother into producers and products, they claim, saying that the process creates a marketplace for mothers and the female body.

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