Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 610, 8 March 2024

France: First country to enshrine abortion rights in the Constitution
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 4 March, the French parliament approved the bill with a three-fifth majority, constitutionalizing women's abortion rights. Article 34 would be amended to include the freedom of women to carry out abortions. President Emmanuel Macron called it a "universal message" to defend abortion rights. France becomes the first country to constitutionalize the right to terminate a pregnancy. 

On 4 March, before the vote, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal stated: "We're sending a message to all women: your body belongs to you and no one can decide for you."

On 4 March, on the "Guaranteed freedom" for abortion, national co-president of Le Planning Familial(a French equivalent of Planned Parenthood), Sarah Durocher, said: "This will give birth to other things...For example, real policies so there is effective access to abortion."

On 26 February, the Senate approved the bill, including women's right to an abortion in the Constitution, with 267 votes in favour and 50 against. This follows the approval from the Assemblée Nationale in January.

Issues at large
First, the French society's historical efforts to secure abortion rights. In January 1975, France took the first step in decriminalizing abortion through the Veil Law, with a close majority among conservatives and liberals. It came after a series of protests, feminist movements, and public debates. Until 1974, 48 per cent of the French population was in favour of abortion, which increased to 75 per cent in 2014. Abortion was once considered taboo, especially among the conservative Christians. However, it is no longer viewed as "shame or silence." In 1993 and 2001, two laws were passed that decriminalized self-abortion and instituted the offence of obstructing the termination of pregnancy. The change became evident with the involvement of the progressive younger generation and social media, breaking the taboos. The legislations and the change in views revolutionized the perceptions of society and individuals except the evangelical population.

Second, reason to constitutionalize. Several constitutional democracies have come far from banning abortions to legalizing with a scope to provide options for women before deciding not to exclude the right of an unborn child. For France, clearance from the Senate and both houses were considered more of a formality. Making it a constitutional right ensures women additional protection to opt for abortion and makes it tough for politicians to reverse. However, debates within the Christian conservative population on protecting the life and rights of children do hinge on societal mentality. But such strong legal mandates can help improve the rights of women.

Third, the debate across Europe. The majority of women in Europe have access to abortions; however, legal restrictions are a major hurdle. A few examples include Austria and Germany, which regulate the right to exercise abortion under a criminal code. Hungary insists women hear the child's heartbeat before deciding on abortion. The free distribution of abortion pills in Austria and the law against harassment of women who had abortions in Spain were a few other major developments. However, there are constraints for individuals in bearing the cost of the abortion procedure and getting covered under health insurance. Besides, in catholic dominant and eastern European countries, including Andorra, Northern Ireland, Malta, Poland, and San Marino, under moral, religious, and legal grounds, either ban abortion or allow it under restricted circumstances.

In perspective
First, the importance of state intervention. In the 1940s, abortion was perceived as a crime against an unborn child. By the 1950s, feminist movements gained traction in France. Following the government support in 1975, the feminist movements have gone hand in hand with legislation transforming public opinion, with the exceptions being the conservative evangelicals. Since 1975, reforms to the Veil laws during the years 2014 to 2016 have helped transition the mentalities of society towards abortions, making it more liberal for women to choose.

Second, the role of the leadership. For France, not just the government but also the leadership mattered in shaping abortion rights and reducing the restrictions for women. In 1975, Minister of Health Simone Veil served as a pioneer for women's rights and pushed for abortion rights. She faced challenges from jurists and anti-abortion groups in clarifying the law before the healthcare professionals. This helped in passing the Veil law with a close majority. Although such obstacles were not present for Macron, questions over consent to perform the procedure among the doctors and objections of the conservative group persist. Storming through these obstacles amid a rising right-wing party indicates Macron's ability to anchor the rights into the Constitution.

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