The French Resistance

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When Edith Cresson — France's only woman Prime Minister to date — provoked controversy in 1992 by questioning the virility of British males, she could not have imagined that less than a decade later an English organization would be suggesting that French males could use some work in the same area. While not exactly a retort to Cresson's mocking remark, a campaign by crusading British birth control group Marie Stopes International (msi) addresses the unfair division of contraceptive responsibilities in France. It offers to perform on French men vasectomies that the law denies them at home.

MSI started its latest push for what it calls tube-snipping tourism to London by performing a free vasectomy on 47-year-old French financial administrator Bernard Schnakenbourg, encouraging his countrymen to follow suit for a $300 fee. Current French law, founded on Napoleonic-era proscriptions of self-mutilation, bans "assault on the human body except in case of medical necessity." Because there are alternative forms of birth control and only 30% of vasectomy reversals have restored fertility, French urologists have tended to discourage male sterilization. This — plus a lingering cultural aversion to the procedure — explains why fewer than 1% of French men have had a vasectomy versus 16% in Britain, 11% in the Netherlands and 13% in the U.S. and Canada.

The French continue to put the onus of birth control on women, with use of diaphragms or contraceptive pills seen as their sexual responsibility. msi, in its campaign to combat this one-sided arrangement, had planned to run an advertisement touting its service but was turned away by French newspapers and the Paris Metro on grounds that both the offer and the ad, which tweaks Napoleon's famous pose, might upset people.

Associating vasectomy with self-mutilation seems hypocritical in an age when cosmetic surgery and collagen injections are commonplace along with tattooing, piercing, branding and subepidermal implants. And French doctors don't have the same misgivings about tubal ligation — more than 6% of French women have been "tied."

"This is one of many French paradoxes created by laws that appear to be quite strict, but whose interpretation and application evolve as social and cultural attitudes change," says Noλlle Lenoir, an ethicist with France's constitutional court. "The law actually seems designed to allow male sterilization as a contraceptive procedure, but French society does not appear to be prepared culturally to embrace that practice yet." Until it is, tube-snipping tourism won't be luring many Frenchmen to visit clinics — either at home or abroad.