On the rocky road to incorporating the right to abortion into the French constitution

The National Assembly of the French lower house will vote on 24 and 28 November to enshrine the right to abortion in the country’s constitution. Two rival proposals, one drawn up by the hard-left France Unbowed party and the other by Macron’s Renaissance, will be debated by MPs. But even if one passes, the road ahead is full of political divisions and complex procedures.

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Simone Veil helped pass a law decriminalizing abortion in France when she served as health minister. The Veil Law, or “Law on Voluntary Termination of Pregnancy,” was passed on January 17, 1975.

But shortly after the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, the French National Assembly buzzed with debate over whether the country should enshrine the same right in its own constitution.

Two separate amendments, one by France’s hard-left Unbowed party and the other by President Macron’s Renaissance party, were tabled as a result. United by the desire to protect the right to abortion in the French constitution, they will be debated by MPs on 24 and 28 November respectively.

“No woman can be deprived of the right” to abortion, reads the proposal from Macron’s Renaissance party. France Unboweds is similar but includes the right to contraception, which reads: “No one can violate the right to abortion and contraception.”

Some members of parliament from right-wing and far-right parties see the bills as a knee-jerk reaction to a legal right that they say is not under threat in France.

Others, like France Unbowed MP Adrien Quatennens, see the overturning of Roe v. Wade as a red flag and prefer to take preventive measures. “In light of the situation in the United States … this right must be protected in the constitution because the future is uncertain if it can be threatened,” he told French newspaper Le Monde.

A divided political landscape

The presidential party and the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES), which includes France Unbowed, have appeared to reach an agreement. But MPs from parties on the right such as the Republicans (LR) or the far-right National Rally (RN) are torn between conservative and even anti-abortion stances, and more progressive ones.

Republican MP Aurélien Pradié, for example, recently expressed her support for the bill. “I hope we can vote to constitutionalize this right,” he said on French channel Sud Radio. But the man at the head of Pradié’s party, Bruno Retailleau, tweeted his reluctance to include the right to abortion in the constitution.

Marine Le Pen, who has been the spearhead of 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 Nov. 13.

During her 2012 campaign for the French presidency, she did not appreciate the state subsidizing abortions and believed that some women use them as contraception, talking about “comfort abortions”. Her words were and still are very controversial.

Other members of the National Rally are strongly and vocally against the idea. Some even went so far as to compare abortions performed after 14 weeks (now legal in France) to “the Armenian and Rwandan genocides, to the Holocaust”.

Senate obstruction

Since the adoption of France’s current constitution in 1958, only 24 revisions have been made, the last being adopted in 2008. These include the right to direct universal suffrage, adopted in 1962, and limiting the powers of the president to two consecutive terms.

In order for the constitution to be amended, there must be presidential approval, approval by both chambers (the National Assembly and the Senate) and approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of two parliaments. Another option is to hold a referendum, but only after the two houses have voted in favor of the bill.

This means that even if one of the texts were to be adopted by the National Assembly, it would still be a long time before the right to abortion is enshrined in the constitution.

And so far, motions to do so have been rejected by the French Senate.

Speaking to Axadle, Green Senator Mélanie Vogel explained that since the Loi Veil – the 1975 law decriminalizing abortion in France – was passed, “right-wing senators have always opposed various advances on abortion rights.” Citing examples, she continued: “[The right] opposed reimbursing abortion costs, extending legal deadlines and criminalizing intervention.” But she remains optimistic.

On October 19, right-wing senators rejected Vogel’s cross-party proposal to include abortion in the constitution. “The opposition was not that strong in the end,” she said, referring to the 139 in favor to 172 against. “I think there is a way forward and we have a chance to win this victory in the Senate.”

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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