A few weeks ago, a quite important case here in France was settled by the high court in Paris, regarding the "right" to die. Recall the case of Vincent Lambert, a man who for a decade following a terrible car accident has lain in a coma, kept alive by machines that feed him and assist his breathing. The French parquet affirmed the wishes of his wife and half of his family in granting permission that life-sustaining functions be withdrawn. Within hours, the Cour Européenne des Droits de L'Homme (CEDH) - the European court of human rights - reversed the decision, ordering that Lambert remain on life-support, affirming the request of his mother and father, and the other half of his siblings.
A the time, I was struck by the terrible story, and have long wondered what it actually means to be human, a question I think about often. Are we defined by our physical bodies? By our memories and experiences? Our emotions? Our intellect?
Today, an article in Le Figaro provoked me from a different angle - rather than end of life, this case is the opposite.
France, viewed from the outside, is a progressive country - liberal policies on leave and work. Forward-thinking on the environment. But in reality, it is a deeply conservative nation in many ways. Though same-sex marriage has more or less been granted, and society in Paris is very open and accepting of gays, just beneath the surface, there remains a visceral, if minority, opposition.
The topic du jour is connected to what in France is called GPA (gestation pour autrui) - surrogate motherhood. Believe it or not, surrogacy is currently not legal in France. Even more bizarrely, the French government refuses to recognise children born to parents who go abroad for surrogacy. In late June, the CEDH decided that this was in conflict with basic human rights, and ordered France to recognise the children of French citizens who are born abroad through surrogacy. The case involved twins born in California in 2001 to French parents, who have for more than a decade been trying to have their children granted legal citizenship in France.
This has been opposed by governments both left and right, including the current socialist president, François Hollande.
All of that may be ending, as Le Figaro reported this morning that the secretary for families and children, Laurence Rossignol in an open letter to the newspaper Liberation, declared that children born abroad by surrogacy "doivent bénéficier de la même sécurité juridique que les autres." (must have the same rights and protections as others).
The timing could not have been more stark, as the terrible case of twins born in Thaliand by surrogacy for an Australian couple has been making headlines.
In that case, one of the twins - a little boy called Gammy - was delivered with Down Syndrome, a heart problem, and quickly developed severe infections. The little boy was apparently more or less abandoned in Thailand by the couple, who took with them the healthy twin sister.
It's an awful, awful story raising all sorts of questions. Stories swirling around the circumstances change, but it's very difficult to look at any of the 'sides' and not be touched by the heartless way a helpless infant was treated more or less like a commodity.
Again, I ask - what is it to be human?
Alongside the story in Le Figaro is an essay by a French philosopher called Chantal del Sol, looking at the ethical questions surrounding surrogacy. A defender of GPA called Pierre Berge commented:
Il n'y avait pas de différence entre louer ses bras pour travailler à l'usine ou louer son ventre pour faire un enfant.
(There is no difference between renting your arms to work in a factory or renting your belly to make a child)It's a utilitarian argument, of course, along similar lines that we "own" our bodies and thus, can do as we wish.
But are we simply supermachines of a sort, or is there something more? One need not venture onto the slippery rocks of religion to ask, what exactly is the difference between "renting" our bodies or other possessions? Is there something more precious about life? Human life?
Del Sol responds that a view such as the utilitarian one ultimately debases motherhood and humanity itself. A factory makes things, of course, but a human being is not a product. I was touched by her words:
La maternité ne se résume pas à la fabrication d'un bébé dans un utérus inséminé par du sperme. Car un enfant n'est pas un produit, n'est pas un artifice, n'est pas un objet - mais une personne. La personne ne se fabrique pas, elle se procrée - autrement dit, il y a un mot spécifique, pour distinguer ce processus de celui engagé par le souffleur de verre ou le manufacturier.
(Motherhood is not simply the making of a baby in utero through the act of insemination. A child is not a product, or a thing; it is not an object, but rather, a person. That is why we have a word - procreation - to distinguish birth from say, a glass-maker or a manufacturer.)Ultimately, I see all around me the degradation of humanity. Part of progress is the removal of obstacles that make life difficult. We have washing machines to clean clothes, dishwashers to clean dishes. We have winches to lift weights and cars to carry us.
But not every change makes the world better. Change and progress are not synonyms.
But there are things in life whose very struggle is part of life, and having a baby is one of them. Being pregnant is difficult Giving birth is painful and it is messy, (NB: I am sure - though as a male I have no first-hand experience, I do have a child and was there before and during his birth). Because of infertility or other issues, some people are not able to procreate in the "natural" way, and for them, surrogacy provides an alternative.
But to reduce the process to the mechanics (and economics) of "renting your body" to make a baby in the way you "rent your arms" to make products in a factory moves us that much closer to a future without humanity.
Children - whether born naturally or through surrogacy - are not products. One cannot and should not simply send them back if there are problems in the process the way you would a shoe missing a lace.
People are not disposable, not yet. And hopefully, the government in France today took a step closer to that recognition, even if Australia didn't.