World

French Senate Votes to Enshrine Abortion Access in Constitution

France took a step closer to enshrining access to abortion in its Constitution, after senators backed a bill on Wednesday to include it as a “guaranteed freedom.”

Before the constitutional amendment becomes official, it must receive approval by three-fifths of all lawmakers in a special meeting called a congress, which is planned for Monday and considered by many to be a rubber stamp, since both houses have already overwhelmingly supported the bill.

While many French politicians consider the move natural for the country that produced the universal rights of man, they also conceded that the trigger came from across the ocean, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022.

Within weeks, many proposed bills were presented to entrench abortion rights in France so that it would not be repealed by a future government seeking to curtail abortion.

“It is always too late, if we wait until a right is threatened to protect it,” Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti told the senators. He added, “The freedom of abortion is not like the others because it allows people to decide their future. For democracy to control its destiny, women must be allowed to control theirs.”

Instead of declaring abortion a right, the change would declare abortion a “guaranteed freedom” overseen by Parliament’s laws.

In a long debate, it was apparent that senators were cognizant they were making history with the vote and sending a signal to the world.

Mélanie Vogel, a senator from the Green Party who was a major force behind the bill, said the decision would “unambiguously state that the right to an abortion is not a sub-right, but a fundamental right. It is a condition of freedom in free and equal societies.”

“Back-street abortionists, coat hangers, knitting needles — never again,” she added during the debate. “Let us say to our daughters, to our nieces, to our granddaughters: You are today and henceforth free to choose your lives, forever.”

Few of the 50 senators who opposed the move offered anti-abortion arguments, which are not common in France. Most of the pushback focused on a sense that the change was not necessary since abortion rights are not threatened in the country, and that the change might introduce a hierarchy of freedoms in the Constitution. Critics of the measure also argued it would do little to improve access to abortion for Frenchwomen who live in medical deserts.

“It’s enshrining a symbol in the Constitution,” said Muriel Jourda, a senator with the conservative party, the Republicans. “Is it the Constitution’s role to send messages to the rest of humanity? Personally, I don’t think so.”

Though the legislation is much weaker than many earlier bills, feminists and lawmakers still applauded the move.

“Our grandchildren will never have to fight to have an abortion,” said Sarah Durocher, national co-president of Le Planning Familial, a French equivalent of Planned Parenthood. “We want to make this an echo for feminists all around the world. We needed a victory.”

France decriminalized abortion in 1975, when Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and health minister, pushed forward a bill centered mostly on public health concerns and not women’s rights over their bodies, said Bibia Pavard, a historian who co-wrote a book on the Veil law.

After the bill became law, it meshed with the feminist movement, and Ms. Veil emerged as a national hero and feminist icon. But because of opposition within Ms. Veil’s own conservative party, the original law was quite restrictive.

Since then, Parliament has continually voted to extend and expand the scope of the law, to the point that it is considered among the most supportive of abortion access in Europe: It allows fully funded abortions for women and minors up to the 14th week of pregnancy, with no waiting period or required rationale.

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.

Since 2001, one in four pregnancies on average are terminated by abortion in France, according to a 2020 parliamentary report.

Unlike in the United States, where the impassioned debate on abortion has saturated politics, the courts and personal relationships, in France, the issue is largely considered settled and is not a political flashpoint. There have been no effective political efforts to curtail abortion in the country over the past half-century, and most French people support abortion rights. Protests opposing abortion draw relatively few people.

An opinion poll conducted in late 2022 found that 86 percent of respondents favored the “constitutionalization” of abortion.

While French legislators have proposed writing abortion into the Constitution before, the overturning of Roe v. Wade has supercharged the efforts.

In November, French lawmakers in the lower house, the National Assembly, backed a proposal to enshrine abortion in the Constitution, calling it a right. The right-leaning Senate later amended the bill, replacing the term “right” with a woman’s “freedom” to terminate their pregnancies.

The latest version of the bill, presented by the government as a compromise, was passed again by the National Assembly in January.

The concerns provoked by the Roe v. Wade decision have led to a drumbeat of French petitions, open letters in the newspapers and pressure campaigns on politicians from constituents, including from their own family members, to pass the bill.

“The rights of women are reversible — you are never sure to have really won,” said Geneviève Fraisse, a French feminist philosopher. “The proof is in the United States.”

“The ownership of your body, that must be a right,” she said in an interview, noting that she was wary of the word “freedom.” “Article 4 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen says my freedom ends where another person’s begins. There’s the question of the other — does that include what is in a woman’s womb?”

The term “guaranteed freedom” is new to the French Constitution, and its meaning unclear.

“It’s not something common in French constitutional semantics,” said Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, a professor of public law at the University of Paris-Nanterre who has worked with lawmakers on many different versions of the bill. “It’s hard to say what it means from a technical standpoint, although you can understand politically what it means,” she added.

The big question, she said, is how France’s Constitutional Council, a top body charged with ensuring laws conform to the Constitution, would interpret the term “guaranteed freedom” when examining new legislation reducing access to abortion. In that way, the change might offer a false sense of security, she said.

Still, compared to the debate in the United States, the French legislation “does something pretty major,” Ms. Hennette-Vauchez said, contrasting it to the Roe v. Wade decision. “This could not happen in France, once you put ‘guaranteed freedom’ in the Constitution.”

A small group of anti-abortion activists gathered on Wednesday to protest the vote. Many covered their mouths with red-and-white cloth.

“We are gagged like those unborn children,” said Marie-Lys Pellissier, head of communication of the March for Life, an annual demonstration.

But they were a small minority.

“Long live abortion,” shouted a woman passing on her bike, with a toddler on the back.

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting.