The French lower house National Assembly will vote in November on two rival proposals for enshrining abortion rights in the country’s constitution, one drafted by the hard-left France Unbowed party and the other from President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance. But even if one passes, the road ahead is rife with political divisions and complex parliamentary procedures.
French Holocaust survivor and women’s rights advocate Simone Veil pushed for a law decriminalising abortion when she served as health minister. The Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Act – which became known as the “Veil Law” – was adopted on January 17, 1975.
But shortly after the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in June, the French National Assembly was buzzing with debate on whether the country should enshrine that right into its own constitution.
Two separate amendments, one from France’s hard-left France Unbowed party and the other from President Macron’s Renaissance party, were filed as a result. They will be debated by MPs on November 24 and 28, respectively.
“No woman can be deprived of the right” to an abortion, reads the proposal by Macron’s Renaissance party. France Unbowed’s is similar but includes the right to contraception, reading: “No one can infringe the right to abortion and contraception.”
Some MPs from parties on the right see the bills as knee-jerk reactions to a legal right that is, according to them, not under threat in France.
Others, like France Unbowed MP Adrien Quatennens, consider the overturning of Roe v. Wade as a red flag and prefer to take preventative measures. “In light of the situation in the United States … this right must be protected in the constitution because the future is uncertain as to whether it could be threatened,” he told French newspaper Le Monde.
A divided political landscape
The presidential party and the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES), a leftist umbrella group that includes France Unbowed, seem to have reached a consensus. But MPs from parties on the right like Les Républicains or the far-right National Rally are torn between conservative and even anti-abortion stances or more progressive ones.
MP Aurélien Pradié of Les Républicains, for example, recently voiced his support for the bill. “I hope we can vote to constitutionalise this right,” he said on French channel Sud Radio. But the man who heads Pradié’s party, Bruno Retailleau, tweeted his reluctance to enshrine the right to abortion in the constitution.
Marine Le Pen, who has headed the far-right National Rally party until recently, has always expressed her reluctance. “We are not the United States. No political party in France is calling for abortion rights to be abolished. I don’t really understand what danger this bill is trying to address,” she told French newspaper Journal du Dimanche on November 13.
During her 2012 campaign for the presidency, Le Pen hinted at ending state reimbursement for abortions and said she believed some women use them as a means of contraception in speaking of “comfort abortions”. Her words remain highly controversial.
Other members of the National Rally are staunchly and vocally opposed to the idea. Some even went as far as to compare abortions carried out at 14 weeks (now legal in France) to “the Armenian and Rwandan genocides, to the Holocaust”.
The Senate hurdle
Since France’s current constitution was adopted in 1958 only 24 revisions have been made, the last one passed in 2008. These include the right to direct universal suffrage, passed in 1962, and limiting presidential powers to two consecutive terms.
In order for the constitution to be amended, there must be presidential approval, approval of both houses (National Assembly and the Senate) and approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of both chambers. Another option is to hold a referendum, but only after the two assemblies have voted in favour of the bill.
This means that even if one of the texts were to be adopted by the National Assembly, there would still be a long way to go before the right to abortion is included in the constitution.
And so far, motions to do so have been rejected by the French Senate.
Speaking to FRANCE 24, Senator Mélanie Vogel of the Greens explained that ever since the 1975 Veil Law was passed, “right-wing senators have always opposed various advances concerning abortion rights”.
“[The right] opposed reimbursing abortion costs, the extension of the legal time limit and the criminalisation of any interference” in a pregnancy, she said. But she remains optimistic.
Right-wing senators rejected Vogel’s cross-party proposal to enshrine abortion in the constitution on October 19.
But even so, the “opposition was not so strong in the end”, she said, referring to the 139 who voted for and the 172 against.
“I believe that there’s a way forward, and that we have a chance to win this victory in the Senate.”
This article was translated from the original in French.