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France makes abortion a constitutional right in 'world first'

France makes abortion a constitutional right in 'world first'
People gather at the Place du Trocadero near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, on March 4, 2024, during the broadcasting of the convocation of both houses of parliament to anchor the right of abortion in the country's constitution. Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP

French lawmakers on Monday voted in favour of anchoring the right to abortion in the country's constitution, in a global first that has garnered overwhelming public support.

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A congress of both houses of parliament in Versailles voted my a huge majority to back the move, with 780 votes in favour and 72 against.

In Paris, people gathered in the Place du Trocadero to watch the result being broadcast on a big screen.

France now become the only country in the world to clearly protect the right to terminate a pregnancy in its basic law.

President Emmanuel Macron pledged last year to include enshrine abortion - legal in France since 1975 - 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.

After the vote was counted, Macron announced that the ceremony marking the inscribing of the new clause into the constitution will take on Friday, March 8th - international women's day - in a public event in the Place Vendôme at 12 noon.

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Adding to the right to the constitution will not change the current law, but would make it much harder for any future government to roll back reproductive rights.

Explained: What is the law on abortion in France 

France's lower-house National Assembly in January overwhelmingly approved making abortion a "guaranteed freedom" in the constitution, followed by the Senate on Wednesday.

On Monday evening it cleared the final hurdle of a combined vote of both chambers when they gathered for a rare joint session at the former royal residence of the Palace of Versailles.

When political campaigning began in earnest in 1971, "we could never have imagined that the right to abortion would one day be written into the constitution," Claudine Monteil, head of the Femmes Monde (Women in the World) association, told AFP.

Monteil was the youngest signatory to "Manifesto of the 343", a 1971 French petition signed by 343 women who admitted to having illegally ended a pregnancy, along with up to 800,000 of their compatriots each year.

Abortion was legalised in France in 1975 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.

But another leading feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, had told Monteil the year  before that "all it will take is a political, economic or religious crisis for women's rights to be called into question", she recalled.

In that sense, "the behaviour of the US Supreme Court did women all around the world a favour, because it woke us up", Monteil said.

Leah Hoctor, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said France could offer "the first explicit broad constitutional provision of its kind, not just in Europe, but also globally".

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

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".

Most members of the French public support the move to give the right extra protection.

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A November 2022 survey by French polling group IFOP found that 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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