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French Abortion Rights Enshrined in the Constitution: How We Got Here

On March 4th 2024, France became the first country in the world to enshrine in their Constitution the right to voluntary interruption of pregnancy. The road has seldom been easy. This achievement marks a milestone in France’s political history. Let’s take a deeper look at the events and dynamics leading up to this point, and what it could mean for the broader international environment. 

In the mid-20th century, amidst France's recovery from two World Wars and under a conservative social climate, movements advocating for the rights to contraception and abortion began to emerge. People challenged the restrictive Law of 1920 against contraception and the nearly total ban on abortions from the penal codes of 1781 and 1871. Despite slow progress and societal resistance, the persistence of clandestine abortions highlighted the ongoing need and issues around women's reproductive rights. 

The latter half of the century saw a surge in feminist activism, with groups like the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF), Choisir, and the Mouvement pour la liberté de l’avortement et de la contraception (Mlac) leading the charge for better access to contraceptives and abortion rights. Feminist groups addressed public health concerns and spotlighted the inadequacies in women's reproductive healthcare.

However, finally in 1967 the Neuwirth Law was voted through the Assemblée Nationale and the Senate, legalising the use of contraceptive methods. 

The feminist movements in France, galvanised by 1971's Manifest des 343 — a manifesto where 343 women, including notable figures like Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, and Catherine Deneuve, openly confessed to having abortions — drew significant attention from politicians and the media, signalling a shift in societal attitudes towards abortion. Notably none of the signatories faced judicial consequences. The lack of legal action signalled that beliefs were shifting in France, and from there the pace towards abortion legalisation picked up. 

In 1972, the trial of Bobigny shook France. Five women were sent to trial for helping Marie-Claire, a 16-year-old raped by her ex-boyfriend, get an abortion. Lawyer Gisèle Halimi defended the girls but only the “faiseuse d’anges” (maker of angels) was condemned to prison. This event marked a pivotal moment, leading to changes in the political landscape and paving the way for the legalisation of abortion.

In 1975, then Health Minister Simone Veil introduced the Veil Law to legalise abortion, amidst fierce opposition from a predominantly conservative Assemblée Nationale. After several months, the law was adopted. Eventually, the practice was normalised and reimbursed by the Social Security (French national health insurance). 

Let’s jump forward 50 years. 

In June 2022, Roe v Wade was overturned in the United States, prompting a chorus of concern for women’s rights across the globe. In France, this prompted President Emmanuel Macron to push for enshrining abortion in the constitution. After 18 months and pressure from feminist groups and influential political figures of the Assemblée (Mathilde Panot, Aurore Bergé and Laurence Rossignol amongst others), the freedom of women to have a voluntary interruption of pregnancy was adopted.

Several issues, however, have been raised with the amendment’s phrasing, which has led to some members voting against the motion. Controversy mostly surrounds the fact it guarantees “the freedom of women to have an abortion” and not “the right of women to have an abortion”. Usually the French Constitution guarantees rights, not mere freedoms, to citizens. Though some consequently saw fit to vote against the motion, it passed with a crushing majority. Concerns around the precise meaning of “women” in the transgender community will have been assuaged by the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State) which specified that civil status was not a factor and the freedom is in practice available to all individuals.

This amendment is a massive step forward with great political and symbolic implications for women not only in France, but across the globe. We can only hope that nations around the world will take up the cause and recognise the importance of delivering the freedom and the right to contraception and abortion. 

France has become a global pioneer in safeguarding women's unequivocal right to terminate a pregnancy. The revision was passed by a decisive 780-72 vote, which was met with a standing ovation in the Versailles parliament upon announcement. President Emmanuel Macron hailed this landmark decision as a source of "French pride," conveying a "universal message."

In closing this article, I want to pay tribute to all the women and their supporters who have contributed their energy in the war to enshrine women’s rights in law. This article is dedicated to the women who suffered physically and psychologically; to the doctors and nurses who braved the law and assisted those in distress; to those who did not turn a blind eye; to the lawyers who defended those who received or performed clandestine abortions; to the politicians and leaders who fought relentlessly to ensure that this freedom and right became normalised in France.

Image: Shutterstock/via The BBC

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