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‘It was a wake-up call’: After Roe v. Wade, French lawmakers seek to enshrine abortion rights

When the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, French women were paying close attention. They watched with alarm as those across the Atlantic lost their long-standing right to abortion, seemingly overnight. What if France came next?

“It was a wake-up call for everyone,” French Senator Mélanie Vogel told CNN. “We don’t want to wake up like American women… with this right being taken from us,” she said.

A year and a half later, France is en route to enshrine the right to abortion in its constitution, a move that would make it very difficult for future parliaments to chip away at it with restrictive legislation.

Left-wing lawmakers like Vogel are leading the charge, but the bill has garnered rare cross-party support. It’s backed by the French government itself, with President Emmanuel Macron recently promising that “in 2024, women’s freedom to have an abortion will be irreversible.”

If the bid is successful, the French constitution will become the first in the world to include the right to abortion, according to Stephanie Hennette-Vauchez, a public law professor and constitutional expert..

Screens display the results of the senate vote on a draft law for the constitutionalization of the right to abortion at the Senate in Paris on February 1. - Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
Screens display the results of the senate vote on a draft law for the constitutionalization of the right to abortion at the Senate in Paris on February 1. - Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters voice their support for abortion rights during a debate at the Senate in Paris. - Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters voice their support for abortion rights during a debate at the Senate in Paris. - Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Although the motion has garnered broad support in France, there has been no shortage of criticism from right-wing lawmakers. Politicians such as Jordan Bardella, president of the far-right National Rally party, have suggested constitutionalization is pointless, as abortion rights in France are not under threat.

“France is not the United States’ 51st federal state,” Bardella said on French TV, “there is no serious widespread political movement in France calling into question the [abortion] law.”

Meanwhile, women’s rights advocates insist that enshrining abortion rights in the constitution, while important, will do nothing to facilitate access, a growing issue in rural parts of France.

“Access to abortion in France today is very unequal depending on the area,” French Senator Laurence Rossignol told CNN. In Paris, access is “much easier than if you live in what we now call a medical desert,” she added.

If the US isn’t safe, are we?

For many women in France, the overturning of Roe v. Wade last summer hit too close to home. Popular French TV host Enora Malagré, who has spoken openly about her own abortion aged 20, said she was distraught when she heard the news.

“When we heard in France that the United States was moving in this direction, we cried a lot,” she told CNN.  “We said to ourselves, if this is happening to our friends in the US, it’s catastrophic.”

Currently, abortion rights in France are protected by a 1975 law which has been amended on numerous occasions, most recently in 2022, to lengthen the time frame for legal abortions from 12 to 14 weeks of pregnancy. Like all laws, however, it could be revoked by a vote in the French parliament.

Enora Malagré attends the "L'Abbe Pierre, Une Vie De Combats" premiere on October 10, 2023 in Paris. - Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images
Enora Malagré attends the "L'Abbe Pierre, Une Vie De Combats" premiere on October 10, 2023 in Paris. - Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images

Changing the constitution, on the other hand, is a much more challenging process, requiring either a national referendum or a 3/5th majority vote in the French Congress — a special body composed of both chambers of parliament. According to backers of the bill, therefore, constitutionalization would safeguard abortion rights even if a pro-life majority were to be voted into office.

Rossignol believes that the overturning of Roe v. Wade had a huge impact on public opinion in France, instilling a fear that abortion rights could be placed under threat at any moment.

“The United States is perceived as… a liberal country… a country that resembles ours,” she told CNN. “The idea that this could happen in a country like the US got everyone thinking: Are we safe?”

The sentiment is echoed by organizations in France on the front line of the fight for reproductive rights, who are fearful of further reversals globally.

When the far right came into power in certain countries, one of the first things they attacked was… the right to abortion,” said Sarah Durocher, president of Planning Familial, the French branch of Planned Parenthood International. “I don’t see why France would be an exception,” she added.

Last year, Hungary’s hardline nationalist government made it mandatory for women to listen to the fetal heartbeat before an abortion. In Poland, where abortions are only allowed in the event of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health, further restrictions were passed in 2020, when abortions on the grounds of fetal defect were outlawed by the conservative Law and Justice party. Just last week, Argentina elected a far-right president who has pledged to reverse the abortion rights the country acquired in 2020.

‘Now or never’

In France, recent polling data suggests 86% of people are now favorable to the constitutionalization of abortion rights.

On November 3, the French government presented a draft text to France’s highest administrative court. Once the text is approved, the Congress will convene in the Palace of Versailles to vote on it. If a majority vote is achieved, the amendment will be added to the constitution.

Macron’s government currently holds enough support in parliament to presume a positive vote.

“We have to do it now,” said Vogel, who submitted the first draft proposal in August 2022. “We have a majority in parliament. We have a majority in society. So it’s now or never,” she concluded.

Many, including Vogel, fear that the growing popularity of right-wing political parties in France might make a similar amendment impossible to pass as early as the next French elections in 2027.

Despite voting in favor of the bill, right-wing political leader Marine Le Pen, who won 41.5% of the French vote in the 2022 presidential election, has traditionally supported rollbacks on abortion rights.

Just last year, the National Rally lawmaker opposed the extension of the legal abortion time frame from 12 to 14 weeks. In those two weeks “the medical act completely changes in nature,” Le Pen told French media outlet Brut, “it is much more traumatizing for women.”

Like other right-wing leaders, Le Pen has also said the proposal to constitutionalize abortion rights is “completely useless.”

Earlier this year, an anti-abortion campaign group called Les Survivants (The Survivors) brought this sentiment into the public domain, plastering stickers with anti-abortion messages onto Paris’s public rental bikes.

In a statement issued in May, the group said this move was a direct response to the efforts to enshrine abortion rights in the French constitution.

Symbolic gesture or real change?

Even among those advocating for the constitutionalization of the amendment, there has been debate over its exact wording.

The current draft submitted by the government accords women the “freedom” to access abortions rather than the “right” to do so, as had been the case in Vogel’s first draft.

The exact phrasing of the article reads: “The law determines the conditions under which a woman’s freedom to resort to a voluntary interruption of pregnancy, which is guaranteed to her, is exercised.”

Hennette-Vauchez, the constitutional expert, is wary that this “watered-down” version of the text might not be as effective at safeguarding abortion rights as the original. While the article guarantees the freedom to have an abortion, it also gives lawmakers leeway to determine the conditions under which this freedom can be exercised, she explained, a power that could be abused in the future.

Additionally, the constitutional amendment per se will do nothing to address France’s growing problem with abortion access, according to Hennette-Vauchez. “You can put it in the constitution,” she said, but that’s “not going to open up a service that actually does abortions … less than 120 km (75 miles) from where you live.”

“It was a wake-up call for everyone,” French Senator Mélanie Vogel, pictured, told CNN. - Lafargue Raphael/ABACA/Shutterstock
“It was a wake-up call for everyone,” French Senator Mélanie Vogel, pictured, told CNN. - Lafargue Raphael/ABACA/Shutterstock

Recent cuts to public health funding have led to the closure of hundreds of maternity clinics in France, making access to abortions, although legal, difficult for many, said Durocher. Her organization, Planning Familial, has assisted several women needing to travel to different areas of the country to get abortions, she added.

The closure of maternity clinics has also limited the access to surgical abortions, which made up just 22% of abortions in France in 2022. According to Durocher, this predominance of medication abortions is evidence of a lack of choice when it comes to reproductive rights and care.

Even if its impact could be limited, however, all the women with whom CNN spoke consider constitutionalization an important step.

At the moment, there are only three constitutions in the world that mention abortion, all  with the purpose of outlawing it, Hannette-Vauchez explained. “If we are the first country to gesture towards a freedom to have an abortion in the constitution,” she said, “it opens up a conversation about why we have been living in a world where reproductive issues are silenced by constitutions globally.”

Vogel is determined to continue to speak up.

“Anti-choice movements and reactionary forces are organized and they are strong, but we are stronger and we should never give up on fighting for abortion rights,” said Vogel. “It’s at the core of having an egalitarian society.”

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