The French government on Wednesday sent to parliament draft legislation that would allow in-vitro fertilization (IVF) for lesbian couples and single women, honoring a long-standing campaign pledge but risking a backlash from conservative voters.
The bioethics bill, which would also allow women to freeze their eggs for reasons other than medical to enhance their chances of having children, is the first major societal reform by centrist President Emmanuel Macron. It was delayed while anti-government "yellow vest" protests roiled the country. Only six years ago, former President Francois Hollande's legislation allowing gay marriage faced strong opposition in a country where the influence of the Catholic Church was thought to have been in decline.
Even so, Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said she did not foresee a re-run of the bitter national debate that split public opinion at the time.
"This is no longer an issue over which the French want to fight," she told reporters. "All the studies show children born to gay couples or raised by single women have no particular difficulties," she said.
However, the far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen called for the issue to be put to referendum.
"There is no right to having children," the party's vice-president, Jordan Bardella, told LCI television. "Children have a right to have a father and a mother and this law creates children without fathers."
Lawmakers will begin debating the bill in September and will be allowed a free rather than a party-line vote. With Macron's centrist party commanding a strong majority, the bill is nonetheless expected to pass.
In a sign France has become more socially liberal since gay marriage was legalized, a BVA poll published on Wednesday in gay magazine Tetu showed 61 percent of French people backed lifting the IVF ban for lesbian couples, up 15 points since 2013.
Macron, who was educated at a Jesuit school and asked to be baptized at the age of 12, has trod carefully in pressing the reform, scarred by the sometimes violent protests in 2013 when he was an advisor to Hollande.
Since his election in 2017, the president has made overtures to the Catholic Church, saying he wanted to "mend the damaged link between State and Church". Those comments prompted outrage in secular France, where faith and state were separated by law in 1905.
Medically assisted reproduction - such as IVF - is widely available to all women in countries such as Britain, Belgium, Spain and Israel.
But in France, it has fed into a broader debate about the commercialization of health care and gay rights.
Health care in France is largely covered by the state. The legislation provides for public funds to cover the full cost of IVF for lesbians and single women, as it does for heterosexual couples. The government anticipates an additional 2,000 IVF requests on top of the roughly 150,000 IVF attempts made each year.
Surrogacy for gay couples will remain banned, however, with the government deeming the issue too incendiary. "It would have raised the issue of the commercialization of women's bodies," Buzyn said.
The bill also ends anonymity for sperm donors, who will have to agree to having their identity revealed if their children ask to know their biological father when they turn 18.