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France Votes on Making Abortion a Constitutional Right

WorldEuropeFrance Votes on Making Abortion a Constitutional Right

French legislators are expected to pass a measure on Monday that would make France the first country in the world to explicitly enshrine access to abortion in its Constitution.

The constitutional amendment requires three-fifths approval of gathered lawmakers from both houses of Parliament to pass. But since 90 percent of lawmakers supported the measure in earlier votes, the vote is widely seen as a formality before a celebration in the regal setting of Versailles Palace, where the joint session of Parliament is being held.

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

The impulse for the change was the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022. But it also reflects the widespread support for abortion in France, built over years, and a successful campaign by a coalition of feminist activists and lawmakers.

“We are saying today, we don’t envisage a democratic society without the right to abortion — that it’s not an accessory, it’s the core of our society,” said Mélanie Vogel, a senator from the Green Party who was a major force behind the bill. “We are not France anymore without the right to abortion.”

Speaking in an interview, Ms. Vogel said, “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 Paris city government has set up a screen in the Trocadéro square — by the building where members of the United Nations General Assembly signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 — to broadcast live a “historic victory for women’s rights.”

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

If the day goes as expected, France will become 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.”

The amendment also broadens the mold of the country’s fundamental text, written by men for men, while ignoring their dependence on women, the constitutional experts say.

“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 in younger democracies like Ecuador, have broadened their scope to include things like support for caregiving and the equal division of domestic work. But they often remain more aspirational than actionable, said Ms. 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.

France decriminalized abortion in 1975, with a temporary law that offered limited access to health services terminating pregnancy. Since then, the law has become permanent and has continually been expanded to the point that it is now considered one of the most liberal in Europe. That includes the right to fully-funded abortions for women and minors, up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, on request with no waiting period and without 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 women wanting abortions could still 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 clearly shone, she said.

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

And though the law states women should have a choice of medical or surgical abortions, in practice that’s 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 Ms. 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.

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 the highest support for legalized abortion in France in the world after Sweden.

However, attempts to introduce abortion to the Constitution failed before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The move spurred French lawmakers to safeguard abortion, presenting multiple bills within months. Last year, the government introduced its own bill that enshrines it in the Constitution.

Lawmakers worked with feminist organizations to build a pressure campaign that reached right into the politicians’ homes. One senator told the Parisien newspaper that women in his family, including his partner, were so angry that he had voted against the change the first time that he decided not to do so again.

Still, just last week, members of that coalition were worried that the Senate, dominated by conservatives, might scupper the amendment. Instead, they voted 267 to 50 for it.

“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,” said Ms. Vogel. “So if you are not against abortion, you had no reason not to vote in favor of it.”

She added, “That narrative penetrated society.”

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting.

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