The French Assemblee Nationale (parliament) has finally voted on new bioethics legislation, after more than two years of debate. The bill, designed to amend a previous law passed in July 1994, was first presented to France's Council of Ministers in June 2001, and was adopted by parliament after a first reading in January 2002.
The 1994 law prevented any experimentation on human embryos, unless it was designed to be of use to the embryo, did not damage it and was done with the parent's consent. This meant that embryo stem cell research was also prohibited in France. The law stated that IVF had one purpose only: to help infertile couples to have a child. Embryos could be kept in frozen storage but had to be destroyed after a five-year period if they were not used. However, since the 1994 law was passed, France's highest medical authorities, the National Ethics Consultative Committee (NECC) and the Academy of Medicine, and the Council of State recommended that research on embryos should be allowed.
The new French law continues an existing ban on human cloning, now dubbed 'a crime against the human race', while making punishments for it more severe, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. But the ban will also prevent 'therapeutic cloning', the use of the cloning technique to create embryos for research, despite a recommendation, made by the NECC in February 2001, that this should be allowed. This was opposed by the National Human Rights Consultative Committee, the Council of State, and the President, Jacques Chirac, who feared that legalising 'therapeutic cloning' would lead to a commercial market for human eggs and would facilitate reproductive cloning. Health Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said, however, that he will maintain an 'open mind' on this issue, and will wait to see a report produced by a new 'biomedicine agency', created under the new law. The new law will, however, allow research to take place on stem cells derived from donated human embryos, but contains a 'sunset clause', allowing this for a limited period of five years. It also permits 'baby medicine', the selection of embryos to produce babies with a genetic make-up compatible with that of an existing sibling suffering from an incurable genetic disease. Controversially, patients with genetic diseases will be encouraged by doctors to tell relatives who may have the same disease. If patients refuse, doctors will be able to anonymously inform relatives, via the new biomedicine agency.
Despite its passage, not everyone in France is happy with the new law. Its text has changed dramatically since its introduction by the then Socialist government. In parliamentary debates since, the conservative right (in power since 2002) has voted for the tight restrictions that the law now contains, while the Socialist party has remained opposed to many of the changes. For example, the original bill would have made it legal for a widow to have IVF embryos transferred to her, as long as they were conceived while her husband was still alive. This provision is missing from the final legislation. And medically-assisted reproduction will only be available to non-married couples if they can prove two years of 'married life'. The Socialists now say that they will take their objections to the Constitutional Council, France's highest administrative body.