February 16, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The French National Assembly voted in favor of a revised bioethics bill on Tuesday that will allow for more widespread embryo research. The bill will now go before French Senate. If the higher chamber alters the text it will come back before the Assembly for a second reading.

Many points of the new law aim to liberalize embryo research. The first ever French bioethics law in 1994 prohibited embryo research of any kind. A revision in 2001 prohibited embryonic research in principle but allowed exceptions for “therapeutic” research purposes during a moratorium of five years.

During that time those seeking exceptions were forced to apply to the Agence de Biomédecine, which is in favor of embryonic research. The moratorium came to an end only a few days before the revised law was examined by the French Assembly, last week, and many scientists were pressing for an end to the ban.

However, while the ban would be maintained in the new law, exemptions will be easier to obtain. It would allow embryonic research in view of “medical progress,” including diagnosis and drug testing, a concession to the pharmaceutical industry.

On the other hand the text allows for conscientious objection for all medical workers who do not wish to participate in this research, and favors “ethical” alternative research whenever possible.

Most socialist and many communist representatives, as well as the Greens, voted against the text on the grounds that it was not liberal enough. The Greens had been pushing for the legalization of surrogate motherhood and for access to artificial procreation for singles and homosexuals, both of which were voted down.

Socialist representative Alain Claeys, who heads the Parliamentary bioethics commission, deplored the maintaining of the general ban: he said embryonic stem cell research is “useful for fundamental research.” He added that last time round, President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime minister François Fillon both voted for a general authorization of embryonic research.

However, MPF representatives Véronique Besse and Dominique Souchet said France was losing an historic opportunity to close the five-year moratorium with a complete ban on embryonic research: “We all know now that research can make progress in other ways … Only ideological factors and financial interests that have nothing to do with the needs of science can have inspired the upholding and widening of this type of experimentation.”

Last Friday the pro-life group Alliance pour les droits de la vie organized a demonstration near the French Assembly in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote. A group of about 50 people, including pregnant women, heavily handicapped men and women and parents of children with genetic diseases stood under a banner proclaiming: “All genetically incorrect.” Some had their heads hidden behind white paper lampshades to symbolize nameless embryos who are being killed because they are not considered up to standard.

A young woman, Claire, whose parents chose not to abort her although she was diagnosed with spina bifida was present. She told LifeSiteNews.com she wanted to thank her parents for the gift of life. “I have more joy in life than many so-called normal people,” she said. “I’m here because I can speak, I want to be the voice of those who have no voice.”

Pro-life organizations say they are disappointed with the law, but underline that their efforts have brought themes to the fore that weren’t even talked about in the mainstream media during the debates preceding the 1994 and 2001 laws: eugenics, the interest of the child, alternative ethical research. They intend to redouble their efforts during the weeks leading up to examination of the law by the Senate.

In addition to the provisions on embryo research, the new law would give access to artificial procreation to unwed couples, who will no longer need to prove they have been living together for two years at least. The text also favors “zero defect” babies by obliging doctors to offer prenatal screening to “all” pregnant women when their medical condition or the state of the fetus “are susceptible of modifying the progress of the pregnancy.”

However, thanks to the efforts of pro-lifers, the law will also oblige doctors to give pregnant women information on existing therapy for the illness or handicap of their unborn child, and give them addresses of parent support groups. A new seven-day reflection period before deciding on a “medical” abortion in these cases will also be made compulsory.

Pre-implantation diagnosis, including double screening for “savior siblings,” will continue to be permitted within limited conditions.

The new law also favors research on umbilical cord blood, as well as storage and usage of umbilical stem cells in the interest of the general public. It maintains anonymous and free donorship of sperm and ovocytes and favors the reduction of the number of embryos created within in vitro fertilization procedures.

The new text also heavily favors vital organ donation, despite growing concern in some circles about the criteria of brain death that allow organ harvesting on people whose heart is still beating: significantly, there was no debate at all on this point, either in the media or at the National Assembly. Campaigns for organ donation will be held in high schools, higher education schools, the army and in the mainstream media on a yearly basis to encourage all types of human donation: vital organs, blood, sperm and ovules.