'Historic' Versailles congress set to enshrine right to abortion in French constitution

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'Historic' Versailles congress set to enshrine right to abortion in French constitution
The grand surroundings of the Palace of Versailles will be the backdrop for Monday's historic special congress. Photo: AFP

France is set to make history on Monday, when a special congress is expected to enshrine the right to abortion in the constitution - becoming the only country in the world to clearly protect the right to terminate a pregnancy in its basic law.


President Emmanuel Macron has called a rare parliamentary congress at the Palace of Versailles for Monday, after the bill overcame its biggest legislative hurdle in the Senate on Wednesday.

MPs in the Assemblée nationale had already passed it by a huge margin, but a clear majority is needed in both houses in order to make changes to the French constitution.

If the congress on Monday, March 4th approves the move, France will become the only country in the world to clearly protect the right to terminate a pregnancy in its basic law.

Macron last year pledged to include the freedom to have an abortion - legal in France since 1974 - in the constitution after the US Supreme Court in 2022 overturned the half-century-old right to the procedure, allowing states to ban or curtail it.


France's lower house National Assembly in January overwhelmingly approved making abortion a "guaranteed freedom" in the constitution.

And in a historic vote on Wednesday, more than 80 percent of voters in the male-dominated and socially-conservative Senate also gave their green light.

The bill is now expected to clear the final hurdle of a combined vote of both chambers when they gather for a rare joint session on Monday at the former royal residence of the Palace of Versailles.

Three-fifths of all lawmakers will need to declare themselves in favour, a threshold that was largely exceeded in both previous ballots.

Leah Hoctor, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said the vote could be historic.

"If the freedom to decide to have an abortion is enshrined in the French constitution, this will be the first explicit broad constitutional provision of its kind, not just in Europe, but also globally," she said.

Chile included the right to elective abortion in a draft for a new progressive constitution in 2022, but voters in a referendum rejected the text.

Some countries allude to the right; Cuba's constitution guarantees women's "reproductive and sexual rights".

And several Balkan states have inherited versions of former Yugoslavia's 1974 constitution that said it was a human right to "decide on the birth of children".

Other states explicitly mention abortion in their constitution, but only allow it in specific circumstances, Hoctor said.


In Kenya, for example, the constitution says "abortion is not permitted unless, in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law".

Abortion was legalised in France in 1974 in a law championed by health minister Simone Veil, a women's rights icon granted the rare honour of burial at the Pantheon after her death in 2018.

The constitutional change will alter anything in current law, but would make it much harder for any future French governments to roll back reproductive rights.

Most members of the French public support the move to now give the right extra protection. A survey by French polling company IFOP in November 2022 found 86 percent of French people supported inscribing it in the constitution.

Macron on Wednesday celebrated what he called the Senate's "decisive step", and immediately called for the parliamentary congress on Monday.


The last time one was called to change the constitution was in 2008, when lawmakers only just approved wide-sweeping reforms under former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Those changes included limiting a president's time in office to two terms, as well as better safeguards for press independence and freedom.


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