What is the historic amendment that enshrined abortion access in France’s Constitution? | Explained

The story so far: The French Parliament on March 4 overwhelmingly approved a bill to enshrine abortion as a constitutional right at a historic joint session at the Palace of Versailles. With this, it has become the only country to explicitly guarantee a woman’s right to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy.

During the extraordinary voting session, out of the 902 legislators, 780 voted in favour of the bill, 72 voted against it and 50 abstained. The measure was promised by President Emmanuel Macron following a rollback of abortion rights in the United States in recent times, especially the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 50-year-old ruling in Roe v. Wade.

Abortion, although legal in France since 1975, will now be a “guaranteed freedom” for women. The amendment had already been passed by the National Assembly in January and by the Senate last week. However, final approval by parliamentarians at a joint session was needed to effect constitutional change.

In the lead-up to the historic vote, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal paid tribute to Simone Veil, a prominent legislator and feminist who in 1975 championed the bill that decriminalised abortion in France. “It takes one generation, one year, one week for things to change drastically,” he cautioned in his opening speech.

The law will now be authenticated by a “seal of congress” and sent to the government. In a symbolic gesture, Mr. Macron will attend a ceremony to finalise the constitutional amendment on March 8, International Women’s Day.

What does the constitutional reform say?

The Bill, introduced last year, amended the 17th paragraph of Article 34 of the French constitution. The amendment stipulates that “the law determines the conditions by which is exercised the freedom of women to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy, which is guaranteed.” This means that future governments will not be able to drastically modify existing laws which permit termination up to 14 weeks.

Indicating how abortion rights have come under the scanner in many countries across Europe, the introduction to the legislation states, “Unfortunately, this event is not isolated: in many countries, even in Europe, there are currents of opinion that seek to hinder at any cost the freedom of women to terminate their pregnancy if they wish.”

Although rare, amending the constitution is not without precedent in France. The French Constitution has been modified over 17 times since it was adopted in 1958. The last instance was in 2008 when the Parliament was awarded more powers and presidential tenure was limited to a maximum of two consecutive five-year terms in office.

France is the only country to currently have such a specification pertaining to abortion, although former Communist-run Yugoslavia’s 1974 constitution said that “a person is free to decide on having children” and that such a right can only be limited “for the reasons of health protection.” After its disintegration in the early 1990s, several Balkan states adopted similar measures without an explicit constitutional guarantee. For instance, Serbia’s constitution in less specific terms states that “everyone has the right to decide on childbirth.”

However, some argue that abortion was already constitutionally protected following a 2001 ruling in which France’s constitutional council based its approval of abortion on the notion of liberty enshrined in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is technically a part of the Constitution.

How has it been received?

Unlike in the United States, the issue of abortion is not highly divisive across the political spectrum in France. Most French people believe that abortion is a woman’s right and an essential public health service. A poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in 2022 showed 81% of respondents were in favour of enshrining the right to have an abortion in the Constitution. According to government figures, 234,000 abortions were carried out in France in 2022.

The right to abortion has not faced any significant challenges from political parties in France, including conservatives and the far-right National Rally party. While some right-wing senators from the Républicains party voted against a first attempt to change the Constitution in October 2022, the stance of major political parties has generally aligned with that of the French public. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, told Reuters earlier that the move was unnecessary and a political gimmick, although her party would not vote against it.

The Vatican and the French Conference of Bishops have, however, opposed the amendment and so have other anti-abortion groups such as the Association of Catholic Families. Critics have also warned that the move is a conscious effort by Mr. Macron to appeal to left-leaning figures in his Renaissance party after controversial pension and immigration reforms.

What is the status in other European countries?

Abortion is currently accessible in more than 40 European nations, but some countries are seeing increased efforts to limit access to the procedure. In September last year, Hungary’s far-right government made it obligatory for women to listen to the pulse of the fetus, sometimes called the “foetal heartbeat,” before they can access a safe abortion.

Poland, which has some of the most stringent abortion laws in Europe, allows termination only in the event of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health or life. Restrictions were further tightened in 2020 when the country’s top court ruled that abortions on the grounds of foetal defects were unconstitutional.

The United Kingdom permits abortion to 24 weeks of pregnancy, if it is approved by two doctors. Delayed abortions are allowed only if there exists a danger to the mother’s life. However, women who undergo abortions after 24 weeks can be prosecuted under the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861.

Also Read:How many countries allow abortion on request, where is abortion completely prohibited, and more

Italy resisted Vatican pressure and legalised abortion in 1978 by allowing women to terminate pregnancies up to 12 weeks or later if their health or life was endangered. However, the law allows medical practitioners to register as “conscientious objectors,” thereby making access to the procedure extremely difficult.

The French initiative could however embolden efforts to add abortion to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

What do experts have to say?

“It’s not stating reproductive choices or the right to have children; it’s a very different language when you say access to abortion,” Anna Sledzinska-Simon, a law professor at the University of Wroclaw in Poland told The New York Times. “The French are calling it by its name — that’s crucial,” she added, highlighting the significance of the move.

However, Mathilde Philip-Gay, a law professor and a specialist in French and American constitutional law warned against easing pressure on legislators to safeguard women’s rights in the wake of far-right parties gaining political influence around the world.

“It may not be an issue in France, where a majority of people support abortion,” she told the Associated Press. “But those same people may one day vote for a far-right government, and what happened in the U.S. can happen elsewhere in Europe, including in France.”

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