PARIS (Reuters) - France's parliament opened debate on revising its bioethics laws on Tuesday amid protests that Catholic Church lobbying had thwarted plans to ease the existing curbs on embryonic stem cell research.
The bill, originally meant to update a 2004 law in light of rapid advances in the science of procreation, would also uphold bans on surrogate motherhood and assisted procreation for gays.
The debate coincided with news of France's first "saviour sibling," a designer baby conceived in vitro to provide stem cells to treat a brother suffering from a severe blood disorder.
Critics of the bill said last-minute changes by deputies of the governing conservative UMP party meant the revision would hardly change the restrictive law currently on the books.
The text retains tight limits for research on embryonic stem cells, a technology the Catholic Church vigourously opposes because the in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) method used to produce them creates extra embryos that are later discarded.
"The Catholics have succeeded in imposing their view on embryos and seem to be succeeding in their attack on this method," said Francois Olivennes, a leading fertility expert.
"We propose the authorisation" of this research, said Alain Claeys, a deputy from the opposition Socialist Party.
The French Catholic Church has made bioethics a priority issue and overseen reports, public meetings and lobbying efforts to oppose an easing and aim for a tightening of the current law.
The bill does not meet all the Church's demands. Among other things, it supports prenatal screening for Down's syndrome, which if found usually leads to an abortion.
Olivennes said the bill, which bans embryonic stem cell research in all but a few specific cases, tightened the 2004 law because it permitted production of only three embryos rather than the unlimited number allowed until now.
"We already have a very retrograde law compared to those in Spain, Britain, Belgium, Netherlands and all of Scandinavia," he said. "Nothing is advancing."
Paris Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois kept up Catholic criticism of controversial new medical techniques, saying the "saviour baby" whose birth was announced on Tuesday was produced to be used to heal another child.
"Are we going to become instruments? I'm completely opposed to that," he said. Ten other bishops issued a statement calling the technique an ethical regression and asked: "What will the child say when it finds out it was a 'designer baby'?"
The bill, due to be voted on next week, looked set to pass because of the government's majority. Conservative deputies defeated an opposition bid to legalise euthanasia last month.
Health Minister Xavier Bertrand told the daily Liberation the bill upheld French family values by keeping the ban on assisted procreation for gay couples. "I am convinced that the presence of a father and a mother is necessary," he said.
An earlier draft planned to drop the secrecy surrounding donors of sperm and eggs, but a last-minute change meant children born from donated gametes will still not be able to find out the identities of their anonymous biological parents.
One change the bill permits is the implantation of an embryo fertilised in vitro after the death of the father.
The daily Le Monde said the planned revision of the law was a disappointment after three years of public debate about it.
"By not changing anything, the parliamentary majority has turned the French bioethics laws into some of the most conservative in Europe," it wrote in an editorial.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)