Sat, May 28, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The unstoppable commoditization of reproductive science

The debate over reproductive rights and obligations will continue as countries mull laws on regulating or deregulating IVF, egg sales and surrogacy

By Donna Dickenson

And it’s not just France’s official ethics committee that takes an anti--commodification stance. The French have recently conducted a series of two-day meetings in several provincial cities. In Rennes, the panel debating reproductive medical issues supported the policy of not paying for eggs or sperm — not even by the back door of increasing the level of “expenses.”

While the HFEA document calls for ethical concerns to be “balanced” against increasing egg supply, French assembly members insist that law, morality and progress are compatible. They reject the view that ethics is optional, even though some influential professors, like Rene Frydman, who helped to create the first French IVF baby, have warned that France will fall behind in the science race unless it abandons its principles. The upper house, the senate, was much more minded to listen to that view, so the outcome is still uncertain.

France is not a Shangri-La, isolated from global markets or the pressures of international research. In the words of Emmanuel Hirsch, professor of medical ethics at the University of Paris-XI” “How long can our bioethical standards continue to resist the rise of other logics — particularly financial ones?”

To be sure, French regulation can be heavy-handed: For example, IVF is restricted to heterosexual couples who are married or in long-term relationships. The official rationale was that eggs and sperm are not commodities, but gifts from a fertile couple to an infertile one. That is also one reason why the French restricted egg donation to women who had already had at least one baby (though this is being changed).

However, the limitation to heterosexual couples was condemned as homophobic by the French public in the consultations. So the draft bill has been amended to allow lesbian women to receive donated eggs (gay men will still be barred, because they would require a surrogate and surrogacy remains prohibited).

That sort of responsiveness to popular sentiment in the legislative process gives the lie to the canard that French regulation is inflexible and hopelessly bureaucratic. In fact, the free-market “Anglo-Saxon” attitude sounds like nothing so much as the old prejudices about the French that have been around since the novelist Thackeray told English readers: “The Frenchman has after his soup a dish of vegetables, where you have one of meat. You are a different and superior animal — a French-beating animal.”

Of course, we now know that a diet of bully beef is likely to result in hardening of the arteries, whereas the vegetable-centered Mediterranean diet is much better for human health. Enough said?

Donna Dickenson, emeritus professor of medical ethics and humanities at the University of London, won the International Spinoza Lens Award in 2006 for contributions to public debate on ethics.


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