France moves step closer to constitutional right to abortion

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France moves step closer to constitutional right to abortion
Placards reading "My body my choice" (L) and "Abortion in the Constitution" are held up during a rally for the constitutional right to abortion in Paris in 2023. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

The French parliament's laws committee approved draft language that would offer women a "guaranteed freedom" to end pregnancies -- stopping short of a full right to abortion -- on Wednesday.


After the landmark abortion ruling known as Roe v Wade was overturned by the United States' Supreme Court in 2022, activists and feminist associations in France began calling for the right to be guaranteed within France's constitution. 

A constitutional law proposal, consecrating a woman's 'guaranteed freedom' to terminate her pregnancy, will first be heard by the Law Committee (commission des lois) of the Assemblée Nationale on Tuesday, prior to further discussion on Wednesday, French media reported.

Abortion is already legal in France, so adding it to the constitution would make no practical difference now, but will make it harder for any future government to roll back abortion rights.

General debates surrounding the bill will take place in the Assemblée Nationale on January 24th. Experts expect the constitutional law proposal to be met with support at this stage.

The next step would be the Senate, which has a more right-wing composition than the Assemblée, where debates are expected to begin on February 26th.

According to La Provence, President Macron's government hopes for the law to be adopted by March 5th, just a few days prior to International Women's Rights Day on March 8th.

Ordinary laws can be reformed with a simple parliamentary majority, while changing the constitution requires Presidential approval, plus the approval of both houses of parliament (the Assemblée nationale and the Senate) and then the approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority in both parliaments.

The other option would be a referendum, but only after the two assemblies already voted in favour.

READ MORE: Can France's Constitution be changed?

The termination of a pregnancy was first decriminalised in France in 1975 and successive laws have since aimed at improving conditions for abortions, notably by protecting the health and anonymity of women, as well as reducing the financial burden of the procedure on women.

A November 2022 opinion poll found that 89 percent of respondents were in favour of making abortion rights constitutional.

According to government figures, 234,000 abortions were carried out in France last year.


The content of the constitutional law

The constitutional law will enshrine a 'guaranteed freedom' (liberté garantie) for women to have abortions, rather than a 'right to abortion' (droit à l'IVG), which women's rights activists had been calling for.

AFP, who received a copy of the text, reported that it reads "The law lays down the conditions under which a woman's guaranteed freedom to have recourse to a voluntary termination of pregnancy is exercised".

France's Justice Minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, highlighted on Tuesday that the State Council, France's highest administrative court, had found no legal difference between the two wordings.

"We have a very balanced text, it's now or never," he said.

However, some commentators have noted that the draft text refers to 'the law' which determines the conditions for the freedom of abortion. 

Anne Levade, professor of public law, wrote an article in the Club des Juristes, cited by Franceinfo, reducing access to abortion could therefore still be attained if the law itself is altered. 

"The inclusion of the right to abortion in the constitution would change absolutely nothing in the law," she wrote.

As the constitutional law would not modify the text of the law, the existence of the 'conscience clause' would be maintained.

Healthcare providers are legally allowed refuse to perform any medical procedure, under a specific 'conscience clause' regarding abortion, which is in the 1975 Veil law.

French public health code does require that practitioners "inform, without delay" their refusal, and communicate alternative providers who could carry out the procedure.


As such, some activists feel there is still a long way to go to ensure the right is properly protected. The president of Planning Familial has called for amending the Veil law.

"We should work to remove the conscience clause [from the law] and make it easier for women to have an abortion with just one appointment, instead of three", Durocher told Franceinfo.

This is why professionals in the sector are also calling for extending the right to abortion by means other than constitutional revision. “We should continue to work on the Veil law, for example, remove the conscience clause from the right to abortion and make it easier for women with just one appointment to have an abortion, instead of three,” listed the president. 


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