Liberté, égalité, paternité

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky

Place Edmond Rostand in Paris was packed on Sunday 6 October. Smartly dressed families kept arriving. They had gathered to oppose a new law that will extend assisted reproduction (PMA) to lesbian couples and single women. Some of the protesters wore sweatshirts with the logo of the anti-gay marriage movement La Manif pour tous (‘Protest for all’). Children waved flags saying ‘Liberté, égalité, paternité’. The sound system blared Céline Dion’s ‘Parler à mon père’ and Stromae’s ‘Papaoutai’ (‘whereareyoudad’). A series of speakers described the new law as ‘against nature’. ‘Fathers, are you there?’ they shouted.

Hortense, a 14-year-old who goes to a girls’ school run by nuns in an upmarket suburb, was worried the gathering wouldn’t prevent the law from being passed. It’s already been approved by the Assemblée nationale, and will be considered by the Senate later this year. ‘A child really needs a father,’ Hortense told me. ‘This is what nature intends. The government is not coherent. They kill a lot of children with abortions and then they’ll have children born in an improper way.’ Her friends were excited because they kept bumping into schoolmates in the crowd.

Speaking in support of the new law in the Assemblée, Jean-Luc Mélenchon said that what really scared people about the idea that women could be mothers without men was the end of the patriarchy.

For Gwen Fauchois, a feminist gay activist, the proposed changes in the law don’t go far enough. The protests against gay marriage in 2012-13 led to an increase in homophobic attacks and had a long-lasting impact, she said. The law on PMA was supposed to be voted on in 2012, but President Hollande backed down. Macron has ‘said several times that opponents to the law have legitimate concerns. It’s a way of saying that some forms of homophobia are legitimate.’ Activists meanwhile have focused their demands on access to PMA. Fauchois calls it ‘a very minimal law, and even a conservative one’. The government is ‘posing at being progressive because a majority of public opinion is ready’. The law doesn’t redefine parenthood, but means only that ‘there’ll be a few less people excluded from PMA.’

In France, a straight couple who have difficulty conceiving can only seek help via the public medical system. Anyone else either has to do it themselves, find a gynaecologist who’ll help with insemination even though it’s illegal, or go abroad. Before lesbian couples were allowed to get married, only the partner who had given birth was legally recognised as a parent. Once gay marriage was legalised, it became possible for the other partner to adopt her child. If a couple separated before the law on gay marriage was passed, the second parent has no legal right linking her to her child. The new law doesn’t solve this problem; nor does it allow a widow to use her dead husband’s sperm.

Jena, a trans woman, is planning to have a baby with her partner, Auréliane. She has interrupted her transition and had her sperm frozen. The justice and health ministers explicitly excluded trans people from the new law: there are so few of them, they said, it wasn’t necessary. In reality, the couple are unlikely to be able to access Jena’s sperm in France – because of a rule against direct donations – and Auréliane may have to give birth in Belgium so that both parents can be recognised. Until 2016, sterilisation was mandatory in France for someone seeking to change gender. The policy ‘had a very clear objective’, Jena told me: ‘to make sure people wouldn’t one day see a man with a beard and a baby bump, which was the ultimate bogeyman. Recent remarks by members of the government still show the same thing: their dismissal of non-binary status. For them, being trans is still a joke.’

On Saturday 5 October, a small group of lesbians had organised a counter-protest in Place Saint-Michel. One couple came with their young child. Banners said ‘We don’t make PMAs, we make children’ and ‘Die, papa-triarchy!’ I spoke with Sam, a representative of Gouines contre (‘Dykes against’). ‘We are fighting to have control over our own bodies,’ she said. ‘We want access to reproduction that is free and open to all, lesbians, trans people, black people’ – who are routinely denied PMA because of a shortage of sperm and eggs from black donors; most centres follow the idea that donations need to ‘match’ the parents – ‘without doctors or psychiatrists. Our families already exist. What we want is for them to be recognised, not to have to struggle.’

More protests by La Manif pour tous are planned. The dates include 1 December (World Aids Day), 8 March (International Women's Day) and 17 May (the International Day against Homophobia).