PARIS — The French are all for sex and all for family — as long as you’re having sex to create one. Anything dealing with assisted reproduction makes a sizable portion of them uncomfortable, as the president’s plans to legalize gay marriage have unexpectedly exposed.
The debate over whether society and science are overreaching when it comes to parenthood has sent thousands into the streets, turned the bridges over the Seine into billboards, and prompted charges that women’s bodies will soon be for rent in a society that still has surprisingly deep conservative roots.
President Francois Hollande’s promise to legalize gay marriage was seen as relatively uncontroversial when it first came up as a campaign pledge. Then, as the debate began recently, his justice minister quietly issued an order to grant French birth certificates for children born to surrogates abroad.
The news reopened a raw and unwelcome national debate on fertility treatments, surrogacy, and adoption. Assisted reproduction is off-limits to all but heterosexual couples showing at least two years of companionship. Egg donation has been regulated nearly into nonexistence, and surrogacy of any kind is punishable by a prison term.
Infuriated opponents pounced, accusing the Socialist government of underhanded tactics to transform families. Despite France’s liberal attitudes and Socialist government, the country also has strong Roman Catholic influence and prides itself on its strong support for traditional families.
When Justice Minister Christiane Taubira went before a raucous parliamentary session last week to defend her order, half the lawmakers gave her an ovation, while another sizable group tried to jeer her into silence.
‘‘You’re encouraging methods that are illegal in our country, that are an attack on human dignity,’’ Jean-Francois Cope, the opposition leader, accused her on Wednesday. ‘‘Children become objects, objects that can be bought and sold.’’
Taubira said the order was only a reflection of current citizenship law, not a new regulation that would lead to legalized surrogacy within France. ‘‘It affirms French nationality, it doesn’t grant it,’’ she said, insisting that no one — from the president on down — wanted French surrogate mothers.
Facing unexpected opposition to their once-popular plans to legalize gay marriage, Hollande’s Socialists in early January dropped plans to link the measure to relaxed restrictions on fertility treatments. And Taubira reiterated earlier denials of any plan to legalize surrogacy.
About 200 egg-donor babies and about 1,000 sperm-donor babies are born annually to French people according to official government figures, with thousands of couples waiting for years for a chance to try.
One 40-year-old woman, recently divorced with a young son and hopes for another, decided there was no point in waiting for the rules to change. She found a clinic in Denmark to provide fertility treatments, scheduled an initial round, and persuaded her French doctor to fudge some of the paperwork.
‘‘He said ‘it’s illegal’ and I said ‘yes, it’s illegal in France, but not abroad,’ ’’ said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. She said three rounds of treatment in Denmark will cost $7,860, not including travel expenses. And she doesn’t dare tell her family. She does not yet know if her second round of treatment in Denmark succeeded.
In France, egg donors must already have children of their own and are not allowed reimbursement for many of the expenses related to the donation — including travel and childcare. Sperm donors face similar restrictions, including showing proof of prior fatherhood. In 2010, 299 men donated sperm in France.
Surrogacy is widely reviled, even among those who want to open access to fertility treatments. The tight restrictions have sent many French abroad — single women and men, and gay and straight couples who fear their time is running out. Many go to Belgium or Spain. Fearing social stigma, few talk about it when they return home pregnant.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters on both sides have swamped the streets of Paris. Last week, as the parliamentary debate began, opponents of gay marriage and changes to the law governing fertility treatment strung banners over the bridges that cross the Seine, including one that read ‘‘Everyone is born from a man and a woman.’’
Hollande had hoped to put off a national debate on assisted reproduction: ‘‘Had I been in favor, I would have included it in the proposed law,’’ he said in December as renegade lawmakers from his Socialist Party tried to take up the issue.