Families that do not fit into the “traditional” cisgender heterosexual mold have existed for decades and have progressively gained acceptance in French society. Yet, recognition of kinship and access to fertility treatments are still not guaranteed by law, a situation that highlights inequalities when it comes to starting a family.
Attempting to make good on his 2017 campaign promise, French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for a bill to be passed “by summer 2021”, with its most prominent feature meant to legalize access to IVF and artificial insemination by single women and lesbian couples. But this key reform was recently rejected by the High Chamber, leaving many activists disillusioned in the midst of this long legal battle. Some hope that the bill will eventually be adopted by the Lower Chamber.
Yet, the debate goes deeper than the story of a monolithic state pitted against progressive forces.
This much is clear: for French authorities, not everyone has an equal claim to becoming a parent. First, single women are qualified as “vulnerable” by some lawmakers in the High Chamber, not to mention the lack of consideration of trans people, who are barely taken into account in the country's national plan against LGBT+ discrimination. It looks like in France, some people’s desire to procreate remains illegitimate and is still treated as abnormal, forcing many single women and LGBTQI+ people to go abroad until the country decides to open assisted reproduction technologies (ART) to them.
A sore point for groups such as La Manif Pour Tous, which oppose the draft law, is that lesbian couples or single women could be having a child without a father, thus “preventing them from accessing their real origins.” Such a concern for children’s well-being could easily be resolved by the proposal of semi-anonymous donations, whereby information about the donor could be made available under certain conditions, rather than by preventing women from accessing ART.
The real objection, though, seems to hinge on the fear that men are losing their place in society. Opponents to the draft bill often refer to women's access to procreation without the involvement of a man, other than as a sperm donor, as tantamount to giving a stamp of approval to “fathers becoming disposable.” This seems to pose an existential threat to a society organised around the gender binary.
La Manif Pour Tous’ perspective also puts aside the mental burden already resting on women when it comes to procreation and child-rearing. Baptiste Beaulieu, a French medical practitioner, points out in one of his tweets that in many cases, it is women who handle most of the childcare, though “at the mere mention of ART for all women here (on Twitter), you will see a herd of males defending their right to devote themselves to a fatherhood that they often delegate in real life.” One might then retort, somewhat tongue-in-cheek: is it healthy for heterosexual couples to have children? This decision is obviously not ours to make and that's kind of the point.
Being a “good candidate” to adopt a child is likewise largely dependent on being a financially stable, steady, and preferably heterosexual couple, as well as white and non-disabled, according to a recent study on adoption placement practices in France. Social workers operate under the assumption of what is considered “best” for the child. The law's implementation is carried out by discrete actors who make a range of decisions affecting citizens’ intimate lives.
We are left wondering what a “good family” is and, more fundamentally, who counts as a family in the eyes of the French government—a government largely made up of elected representatives who are not affected by the issues discussed here.
What makes a “family”?
French law has remained quite conservative on the matter, retaining the primacy of the biological as a principle. Specifically, the law regards as parents the two people who are presumed to have contributed genetic material to the child’s conception, i.e. the person who gave birth and the man who is married to her or comes forward to be registered as the father. All other cases, from co-parenting and blended families to LGBTQ+ parents, currently have to be resolved with some legal tinkering, usually involving an adoption process.
Concretely, this means that when three or four people decide to go down the co-parenting route, only two of them are initially identified legally as the parents, the others being left out of the picture entirely until adoption papers are filed. Lesbian couples face a similar conundrum since only the mother who has given birth can be registered on the birth certificate. In these situations, if a separation occurs before the adoption process is finalized, one of the parents can be completely cut out of the child’s life.
With existing “atypical” families being more and more visible and outspoken, the very concept of family is undergoing a social redefinition. On the ground, the contours of the concept are expanding but judges and lawmakers still have the power to shrink them back, drawing frontiers that parcel out who is legitimate as a parent. What’s at stake here is more than a legal technicality: even if the draft bill that is inching its way along the hallways of government is eventually adopted, much remains to be done to fully embrace all the diversity that currently makes up French families.
There is still a long way to go towards normalizing parenthood outside the strict norms currently laid out by the law. Whenever parenthood isn't achievable without medical assistance or at least without the intervention of a donor, everybody—from religious leaders to politicians—wants to have a say. The material and mental barriers created by these debates might, sadly, lead some would-be parents to think twice about their plans. In any case, those who brave the burdensome administrative procedures to eventually have children do so after careful planning and consideration and with the knowledge that they are skirting the law.
It is hard to foresee which direction the Parliament will end up taking regarding this issue, but we are sure about one thing: activists—on both sides of the issue—will not let it go.