France becomes world’s first country to guarantee abortion as constitutional right

France, abortion, constitution, French parliament
Image Source : REUTERS French lawmakers gave a standing ovation after the right to abortion was enshrined in France’s Constitution.

Paris: In a historic decision, France on Monday enshrined the right to abortion in its constitution, becoming the world’s first country to make the step that has been welcomed by women’s rights groups and harshly criticised by anti-abortion groups. The move was overwhelmingly backed by MPs and senators in the Versailles Palace, as it was passed by 780 votes against 72 in a special joint by the two houses of the French parliament.

Abortion rights activists gathered in central Paris cheered and applauded as the Eiffel Tower scintillated in the background and displayed the message “MyBodyMyChoice” as the result of the vote was announced on a giant screen. “We’re sending a message to all women: your body belongs to you and no one can decide for you,” Prime Minister Gabriel Attal told lawmakers ahead of the vote.

The US Supreme Court’s decision in 2022 to reverse the Roe v. Wade ruling that recognised women’s constitutional right to abortion prompted activists to push France to become the first country to explicitly protect the right in its basic law. “This right (to abortion) has retreated in the United States. And so nothing authorised us to think that France was exempt from this risk,” said Laura Slimani, from the Fondation des Femmes rights group.

Abortion rights are more widely accepted in France than in the United States and many other countries, with polls showing around 80 per cent of French people back the fact that abortion is legal. Women have had a legal right to abortion in France since a 1974 law – which many harshly criticised at the time.

What does the enshrining mean?

Monday’s vote enshrined in Article 34 of the French constitution that “the law determines the conditions in which a woman has the guaranteed freedom to have recourse to an abortion”. The move was proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron as a way to prevent the kind of rollback of abortion rights seen in the United States.

The vote during the special joint session drew a long-standing ovation from the lawmakers, as women’s rights activists hailed the measure. The US decision on abortion had forced the issue of abortion back into the European political landscape at a time when far-right nationalist parties are gaining influence.

None of France’s major political parties have questioned the right to abortion, including Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party and the conservative Republicans. “We have a moral debt to women,” said Attal, while paying tribute to Simone Veil, a prominent legislator, former health minister and key feminist who in 1975 championed the bill that decriminalised abortion in France.

Inscribing abortion into the French Constitution “will make it harder for abortion opponents of the future to challenge these rights, but it won’t prevent them from doing it in the long run, with the right political strategy,” said Mathilde Philip-Gay, a law professor and a specialist in French and American constitutional law. Amending the constitution is a laborious process and a rare event in France. Since it was enacted in 1958, the French Constitution has been amended 17 times.

Criticism of the move

A constitutional amendment is required to be approved by both chambers of the French Parliament and then be approved either in a referendum or by a three-fifths majority of a joint session of the parliament. Macron’s government is wenbt for the second method, even as some members of the conservative majority in the Senate had criticised the wording of the proposal.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, despite voting for the bill, said Macron was using it to score political points, because of the large support for the right to abortion in the country. “We will vote to include it in the Constitution because we have no problem with that,” she said, while asserting that it was an exaggeration to call it a historic step as no one is putting the right at risk.

Pascale Moriniere, the president of the Association of Catholic Families, called the move a defeat for anti-abortion campaigners. “It’s (also) a defeat for women,” she said, “and, of course, for all the children who cannot see the day.” She further said the US decision to remove Roe v Wade panicked feminists, who wished to engrave this “on the marble of the constitution”.

A group of about 200 anti-abortion protesters gathered soberly in Versailles ahead of the vote, some holding a banner reading: ‘’I too was an embryo.’’

In Poland, a controversial tightening of the already restrictive abortion law led to protests in the country last year The Polish constitutional court ruled in 2020 that women could no longer terminate pregnancies in cases of severe fetal deformities, including Down Syndrome.

(with inputs from agencies)

ALSO READ | France approves historic bill in first step to include abortion rights in Constitution

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