The right to abortion in France hardly seems under threat — it’s been inscribed in law for 47 years and enjoys broad support across the political spectrum. But more and more French women are asking: Could what happened in the U.S. happen here?
The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strip women of the right to abortion has reverberated across Europe's political landscape, forcing the issue back into public debate in France at a time of political upheaval.
With women increasingly taking leadership positions in French politics, lawmakers in both houses of parliament have proposed four bills to enshrine the right to abortion in the French Constitution in order to defend it from future threats.
The most notable initiative comes from President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance. His detractors on the left say Macron's party is being opportunist, while far-right critics accuse it of using the issue to distract from more pressing matters.
Abortion in France was decriminalized under a 1975 law named for Simone Veil, a prominent legislator, former health minister and key feminist who championed it.
“This right was fought for and was inalienable,” said Yaël Braun-Pivet, the first woman elected speaker of the National Assembly, France’s most powerful house of parliament. In her first address to the chamber last week, Braun-Pivet made the inscription of abortion rights into the French Constitution a top priority.
“It is my conviction as a woman today that we need to be the watchdog so that it stays in place forever,” Braun-Pivet said.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne also expressed concerns over the potential effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on recent efforts to recriminalize abortion in Europe. Borne, only the second woman in French history to have been appointed prime minister, called the reversal of abortion rights in the U.S. a “historical turn in the wrong direction.”
“It’s a stark warning that women’s rights should never be taken for granted,” Borne said last week after meeting health care providers and reproductive health specialists in Paris. She called for inscribing these rights into the French Constitution and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
The European Union’s parliament adopted a resolution Thursday condemning the U.S. decision and urging the addition of a sentence reading “Everyone has a right to safe and legal abortion” to the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights. Abortion is legal and practiced without much political opposition in most EU nations but is banned in Malta and sharply restricted in Poland.
In France, a poll this week found a solid majority of respondents support the right to abortion, even including most voters who support Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party and the conservative Republicans. The results were consistent with past surveys.
However, the effort to inscribe abortion rights in the French Constitution may not succeed if Macron's political rivals decide they don't want to give him an easy win.
Macron's party lost its majority in the National Assembly in last month's election, while the leftist Nupes coalition became the biggest opposition force and Le Pen’s National Rally won a record number of seats.
“The right to abortion is not questioned by anyone,” Le Pen said on France-Info radio last week. Still, she blasted efforts to cement abortion rights in the constitution, accusing Macron's allies of “political diversion.”
“They want to shift the focus from the main concerns for French people, which are purchasing power, security and out-of-control immigration,” Le Pen said.
On the far left, lawmakers noted that Macron's party dismissed earlier efforts to enshrine abortion in the constitution. Mathilde Panot, leader of the hard-left France Unbowed parliamentary group, is now pushing Borne to propose a government bill on the issue instead of a bill that originated in parliament, which would speed up the process.
Last year, French lawmakers passed a law extending the abortion deadline from 12 to 14 weeks and allowing midwives to perform the procedure.
Feminist activists marched last weekend in Paris to show solidarity with American women and support French efforts to seek constitutional guarantees.
“People think that women will always have this right but considering the rise of conservative political and religious movements, we have our doubts,” said Violaine De Filippis, a Parisian lawyer and feminist activist who joined the march.
Some experts say Macron’s lawmakers are being alarmist.
Anne Levade, a public law professor at La Sorbonne University, said in a blog post that “clearly, there is no risk in France that abortion rights would ever be challenged, like they were in the U.S.”
But Mathilde Philip-Gay, a law professor and specialist in French and American constitutional law, said France's Constitutional Court could also be influenced by politics if groups craft a long-term strategy to end the right to abortion.
“It is not on the agenda right now, but in 10 or 12 years, French judges could do the same thing that judges of the Supreme Court did,” Philip-Gay said.
An inscription into France's constitution “could make it harder for abortion opponents to challenge these rights, but it couldn’t prevent them from doing it in the long run."