When an Illegal Substance in France Is Not What You Think

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When it comes to the technology of making babies, the United States is often considered the Wild West: if you have the means to pay for it, pretty much anything is legal—egg donors, sperm donors, surrogate mothers, picking your child’s sex, and any combination of the above. Yet France, where very little is legal when it comes to assisted reproductive technology and all of it’s highly-regulated, is actually becoming an even wilder West, with women and men taking things into their own hands—illegally.

This July, a judge in Nantes, the capital city of the Loire region, granted a man visitation rights with a child born from an “artisanal” sperm donation he had made to some lesbian friends. “Artisanal” here actually means “illegal”. Wait, how can sperm donation be illegal…in France? Well, it is legal—but only for heterosexual couples. Gay couples, although they now have the right to marry, do not have the right to access any kind of assisted reproductive technology. Indeed, this is the big sticking point that remains unresolved after the enormous gay marriage debate of 2012.

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An online catalog of egg donors from a U.S.-based egg donation website. It is an essentially unregulated free market.

What’s happening is that gay couples are, instead, doing things “artisanally” (cf. “illegally”). Concretely, that means that gay women, and even single women who want a child—since unless a woman is in a committed relationship with a man, in France she doesn’t have the right to sperm donations either!—are seeking out donors on their own. They’re using their own informal networks (mostly the internet) to ask a man to donate sperm, which they then inject themselves.

So if you thought the phrase “turkey baster baby” was an old-fashioned term from a politically incorrect era pre-dating reproductive technology, well, in France it hasn’t fallen out of use. (Although they don’t eat much turkey here—they prefer capon at Christmas—so it’s usually a syringe).  And by the way, if the parties involved in this informal exchange of reproductive matter are found out, they theoretically risk up to two years in prison and up to $40,000 in fines.

All of this says a lot about how France, despite its reputation for being quite liberal on social issues, actually conceives of the idea of family. And it’s a pretty conservative idea: according to the law, the proper family does not include gay couples or single women, since neither is allowed access to the means to found a family.

The French idea of a family.  Edgar Degas's "La famille Bellili".

The French idea of a family.
Edgar Degas’s “La famille Bellelli”.

This recent legal decision makes a lot of people nervous, spelling out clearly the risks of “artisanal” sperm donation and insemination. Since the process is not necessarily anonymous (as it is mandated by the law when done officially), the donor could at any time demand to be legally recognized as the father or, conversely, gay or single mothers could demand that the donor assume paternity. None of which is usually part of the informal plan, and certainly it wasn’t in the case of the Nantes couple.

The sheer awkwardness and anachronism—“turkey baster baby”—of these situations that are brought to light by court decisions like this one will undoubtedly add to the already growing pressure to make the reproductive technology laws in France evolve. But it’s a political hot potato and, not by coincidence, the Hollande administration pushed back the scheduled hearings on the issue…to 2014.

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