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In a first, France approves bill to make abortion a constitutional right

The amendment declares abortion to be a 'guaranteed freedom,' overseen by Parliament’s laws. That means future governments will not be able to 'drastically modify' the current laws funding abortion for women who seek it.
Last Updated 04 March 2024, 18:41 IST

French legislators Monday voted to explicitly enshrine access to abortion in the constitution, making their country the first in the world to do so.

Acutely aware that they were breaking historical ground from the grand assembly room inside Versailles Palace, the politicians delivered impassioned speeches about women’s rights around the world, paid homage to the courageous Frenchwomen who had fought for abortion rights when it was illegal and leaped up to offer standing ovations.

“We are sending the message to all women: Your body belongs to you, and no one has the right to control it in your stead,” Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said before the gathered lawmakers voted 780-72 for the amendment.

The amendment declares abortion to be a “guaranteed freedom,” overseen by Parliament’s laws. That means future governments will not be able to “drastically modify” the current laws funding abortion for women who seek it, up to 14 weeks into their pregnancies, according to the French justice minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti.

Amending the constitution is not unprecedented in France; the current constitution has been modified over 20 times since it was adopted in 1958. But it is rare. Lawmakers last amended the constitution in 2008.

The impulse for the latest change was the decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022, an issue raised repeatedly by legislators. But the move also reflects the widespread support for abortion in France and a successful campaign by a coalition of feminist activists and lawmakers from multiple parties.

“France is showing the right to abortion is no longer an option; it’s a condition of our democracy,” said Mélanie Vogel, a Green Party senator who has been a major force behind the bill. “The French Republic will no longer remain democratic without the right to abortion.”

Vogel said in an interview, “I want to send a message to feminists outside of France. Everyone told me a year ago it was impossible.” She added: “Nothing is impossible when you mobilize society.”

The Conference of Bishops, representing the Catholic Church in France, opposed the amendment. But in France, a country where calls to protest regularly bring hundreds of thousands to the streets, the opposition was notably scarce.

With the vote, France became the first country in the world to explicitly write access to abortion into its constitution, according to five constitutional experts.

“It’s not stating reproductive choices or the right to have children; it’s a very different language when you say access to abortion,” said Anna Sledzinska-Simon, a professor of comparative constitutions and human rights law at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. “The French are calling it by its name — that’s crucial.” She added: “The whole world is watching.”

Constitutional experts say the amendment broadens the mold of France’s fundamental text, written by men for men while ignoring their dependence on women.

“It’s a big milestone, because it goes to the very foundation of this idea that constitutions were about men’s autonomy,” said Ruth Rubio-Marín, author of a book on gender and constitutions. “Women’s role as citizens was essentialized and defined as being breeders and caretakers,” she said. “That was left out. It was just simply assumed as part of this modern society that was being built.”

Other constitutions, particularly those of younger democracies such as Ecuador, have been broadened to include things like support for caregiving and the equal division of domestic work. But they often remain more aspirational than actionable, said Rubio-Marín, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Seville in Spain.

“That this is happening in the old world, in an established democracy where the constitution is taken seriously — in that way, it’s historic,” she said.

The fight for legal abortion in France burst into public view in 1971, when 343 French women signed a manifesto written by French feminist Simone de Beauvoir declaring that they had undertaken clandestine, illegal abortions and demanding that the law change.

Four years later, a female minister, Simone Veil, successfully pushed through a temporary law decriminalizing abortions and offering limited access to health services to terminate pregnancies.

Throughout the special legislative session Monday, lawmakers paid tribute to Veil, a Holocaust survivor and human rights champion, as well as Gisèle Halimi, the former lawyer whose defense of a 16-year-old student who had had an illegal abortion after having been raped led to her acquittal in 1972. The case was a turning point on the road to the legalization of abortion.

“We have followed in your footsteps, and like you, we succeeded,” said Sen. Laurence Rossignol, a former women’s rights minister. She added that French feminists would continue to fight internationally against “those who resist,” citing politicians including Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

“Liberty, equality, fraternity,” she said, citing the French national motto. “And, if I could add, sorority.”

Over the past five decades, the law assuring abortion rights has continually been expanded, to the point that it is now considered among the most liberal in Europe. It includes the right to fully funded abortions for women and minors up to the 14th week of pregnancy upon request, with no waiting period or required counseling sessions.

Later abortions are permitted if the pregnancy is deemed a risk to the woman’s physical or psychological health or if the fetus presents certain anomalies.

After the Covid pandemic hit, France quickly ensured that women seeking abortions could receive medical consultations virtually, said Laura Rahm, a researcher at Central European University, in Vienna, who examined access to abortion in France for a five-year European study.

“A system always shines or cracks when it’s put under pressure,” she said. The French system had clearly shone, she said.

Still, studies show that 17 per cent of women travel outside their home regions — called departments in France — for abortion services, sometimes because of a growing shortage of medical facilities locally.

And though the law states that women should have a choice of medical or surgical abortions, in practice that’s often not the case, said Sarah Durocher, national co-president of Le Planning Familial, a French equivalent of Planned Parenthood.

Putting the “guaranteed freedom” to have an abortion in the constitution means that will have to change, she said.

“This will give birth to other things,” said Durocher, noting that 130 centers offering abortion had closed in France over the past decade. “For example, real policies so there is effective access to abortion.”

Despite the new amendment, French feminists say that France remains a male-dominated society where sexism persists. Settling into her perch overseeing the session as the president of the National Assembly, Yaël Braun-Pivet pointed out that she was the first woman in French history to preside over such a gathering.

But unlike in the United States, the issue of abortion in France is not politically charged and highly divisive. Instead, most French people believe abortion is a basic public health service and a woman’s right. A recent 29-country survey showed France having the second-highest support for legalized abortion in the world, after Sweden.

However, attempts to introduce abortion into the constitution had failed before the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The decision motivated French lawmakers to safeguard the practice, presenting multiple bills within months. Last year, the French government introduced its own bill seeking to enshrine it in the constitution.

Just last week, members of a coalition of lawmakers and feminist organizations feared that the Senate, dominated by conservatives, might derail the amendment, but it passed.

“We managed to create this environment, where if you voted against this change, it meant you wanted to maintain the right as a legislator to potentially prohibit abortion in the future,” Vogel said. “So if you are not against abortion, you had no reason not to vote in favor of it.”

She added, “That narrative penetrated society.”

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(Published 04 March 2024, 18:41 IST)

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