On September 27, 2019, the French National Assembly passed a new law that would extend assisted reproductive technology (ART) to lesbian couples and single women. Until last month, artificial insemination and IVF was reserved for heterosexual couples. The law is expected to go to the Senate for approval and go into effect by next summer.
The following weekend, conservative demonstrators took to the streets to protest the law. One group calls it “ART without a father.” The “children of science” resulting from this change, they say, would be deprived of a father and knowledge of their origins (sperm donors are anonymous in France). They warn it will lead to the commoditization of sperm and eventually the legalization of surrogacy (which is illegal in France). Others don’t believe the government, which subsidizes France’s health care system, should pay for ART. They say that in the case of gay couples or single women, having a child is a privilege and not a right guaranteed by the French state.
Sophie*, 35, shares her story of traveling from France to Belgium and Holland for artificial insemination and IVF with her wife Julie*, 42. Married in 2017, they both work in higher education and live in Marseilles with their 9-month-old son.
When my wife Julie and I first met in 2013, we began discussing almost immediately how we both wanted to have kids. Within a year, we had already begun looking into the logistics of how we could get pregnant, because we suspected it would be a long journey.
Thanks to the Paris chapter of the French Association of Future Gay and Lesbian Parents (APGL), we were able to connect with other local lesbian couples who wanted to have kids. We heard from women who were 35 or 36—my wife’s age at the time—who had done 10 attempts at artificial insemination over two to three years before they became pregnant, so we knew it would take time.
We were also aware that in France it would be even more difficult to have a biological child as a lesbian couple. That’s because both artificial insemination and IVF are currently reserved by law for heterosexual couples who are having trouble conceiving. Single women and homosexual couples don’t have legal access to assisted reproductive technologies.
Both my wife and I wanted to carry a child, but we decided to start with Julie because she was over 35 and I was seven years younger (the thinking being, I could carry the next child, should we have another). We had heard that fertility typically declines with age.
To begin the process of artificial insemination, we first needed to find an OB/GYN in Paris who would prescribe hormone injections to stimulate Julie’s ovaries to produce eggs. That was difficult, because it wasn’t legal. The first doctor we talked to refused because she was worried about getting in trouble with French social security (which pays for universal health care). The next OB/GYN we saw was willing to help. After each round of hormone injections, which involved sticking a needle in her stomach, Julie went to a radiologist in Paris for a series of ultrasounds to check if her follicles had produced a mature egg. They could predict the week when that would happen, but never the exact day.
The next step was securing sperm. We bought the sperm we used online from a sperm bank in Denmark, where we could select the donor, as sperm donations in Belgium are anonymous, and lesbian couples don’t have access to the French sperm bank. We preferred to have a little information and wanted our child to be able to look up the donor if they wished once they became an adult.
We could have attempted the actual insemination at home, but the APGL group recommended going to a foreign clinic—and Julie felt more reassured being in a medical setting. We chose a Belgian clinic for the insemination procedure itself because it’s the closest option to Paris; we had the Danish bank send the sperm there.
The clinic monitored the radiologist’s ultrasounds to tell the day Julie was most fertile. They would tell us the day before that we needed to go to Belgium for insemination. That meant we had to drop everything at work and take a day off to travel from Paris to Liège and back (roughly 250 miles each way). Since the appointments were often in the morning, we’d travel there that same evening and spend the night in a hotel. It’s a lot of spontaneous organization.
Why do heterosexual couples have the right to these technologies but not homosexual couples? It’s not right.
The actual insemination was very simple. The clinic unfreezes the sperm and put it in a pipette, which the gynecologist inserts into the vagina. It’s very quick. But with the travel it’s tiring, and it’s stressful because you can’t prepare in advance.
During the whole process, we met once a month with our APGL group to share tips and advice and our feelings and thoughts about becoming a parent. That helped a lot, because what we were doing was technically illegal, and it was very isolating.
Between 2015 and 2017, Julie and I traveled to Liège six times for artificial insemination. All of the attempts failed. It was exhausting, both morally and physically.
In 2017, we decided to give artificial insemination on me a go instead. My fertility tests revealed that I had bad hormone levels for my age—even lower than Julie’s at the time. My first OB/GYN was very discouraging. She told me that I had a very low chance of getting pregnant, and that if I was in regular contact with sperm my odds would be better—a pretty homophobic subtext, in my opinion. We changed doctors.
At the same time, Julie decided to attempt IVF to maximize chances of success, since artificial insemination wasn’t working for her. After the six difficult misses, we needed a new environment, so we decided to do her entire procedure in Holland. It was a bit more complicated because their forms were only in Dutch, not English or French, and we had to translate them ourselves.
Like before, we both did the hormonal treatments in France, although the hormones Julie had to take for IVF are much stronger to produce more eggs for retrieval. The egg retrieval is a surgical procedure that takes three to four days. It’s a lot more demanding on the body. Because the trips are so tiring, we took a week off to go to Holland in the spring of 2018 for the retrieval. Now we have three embryos that are frozen and awaiting transfer, which we’ll probably do in early 2020.
For my artificial insemination, we had the bank send the sperm to our home in France. It seemed simple enough, and I was tired of making the trip back and forth to Belgium. Since it’s not legal for the doctor to actually do the insemination if you’re not a heterosexual couple, we tried to find a midwife who would do it for us. The first midwife we met talked to us about the church and hell, so we did the insemination ourselves. I got pregnant on the very first attempt. Our son was born in January 2019.
The whole process has been very expensive. All told, a single round of IVF cost us about 6,000 euros (around $6,600); each artificial insemination cost at least 1,000 euros (around $1,100), not counting the travel and hotel stays. If we could have done the procedure in France, both are paid for 100 percent by the French government for women up to the age of 43 (up to six tries for artificial insemination and four tries for IVF).
Taking so much time off of work for these procedures was very hard on our careers. It strained our relationship with our colleagues because we couldn’t tell them anything, since what we were doing wasn’t legal or recognized by the French government.
The last time my wife traveled to Liège for artificial insemination in 2017, I had just started a new job. I wanted to be honest with my boss, so I asked for a day off and shared the real reason I needed to leave, promising to make up the time later. The response was no, which I can understand. But it was discouraging.
Once we decided that I should be the one to try getting pregnant, I felt uncomfortable at work. The fact that I had to leave work for medical exams made my boss very angry at me. Especially since after that initial request, I couldn’t tell her the real reasons I was absent because, again, this was all illegal. I felt ostracized, and so did Julie. Ultimately my manager sent me an email telling me that my colleagues were complaining that I was taking time off and that they shouldn’t have to cover for me. It was really hard. She knew the real reason I was leaving, but we never talked about it because I wanted to protect my family. It was the same with my colleagues.
I hope that no other people will have to go through what my wife and I did, and what many other women have had to do, in order to have a child.
Once I became pregnant, Julie and I both organized a mutually agreed termination with our employers, where we agreed that our contracts would be finished in early 2019. We also decided to leave Paris for Marseille. We felt alone in our battle, between all of the trips we had to make, the hormonal treatments, and not being able to talk to our colleagues. Our family lives in the south, and we wanted to be surrounded by loved ones. For now, neither one of us is currently working. We want to enjoy our lives with our son and savor these precious moments after we’ve put so much time and energy into making our family.
In a lot of European countries, ART for gay couples is legal. In Holland and Belgium, I noticed that homosexual and single Dutch women at fertility clinics were treated like everyone else. Yet France is still behind.
Don’t get me wrong: French people as a whole aren’t homophobic. When marriage for all was passed in 2013 and gay couples were granted the right to marry, it helped change people’s mentalities about what marriage could look like. Yet there’s still an anti-gay sentiment when it comes to families. There’s an old Catholic tradition in France that still exists. It’s a patriarchal vision of society and family, where you need a man who’s the head of the family and a woman who makes the babies. It doesn’t fit in with the reality of what families can look like, especially for the gay community.
When I try to explain the importance of the ART law to people around me, even my friends have a hard time understanding how homosexual and heterosexual couples are treated differently and the importance of changing the law. As it stands today, my wife still has to legally adopt our son, even though we are married!
There’s an enormous misunderstanding around the inequality the laws here created. Why do heterosexual couples have the right to these technologies but not homosexual couples? It’s not right. We are families like any other, and our children are strongly desired and loved. I hope that no other people will have to go through what my wife and I did, and what many other women have had to do, in order to have a child.
*Names have been changed. As told to Colleen de Bellefonds.
Here’s why not all doctors are convinced that egg freezing is a fertility “insurance policy.” And here’s why infertility shouldn’t be seen as exclusively a female issue.