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My constitution, my choice

France has a chance to make abortion history

It’s great to be back in your inboxes this February morning. I hope you enjoyed the ‘Best Of’ series we ran in January, and that 2024 is treating you all well so far. We’re returning to discuss the news that the French National Assembly has passed a provision to consecrate the freedom to have an abortion in the constitution. 

  • 📜 Abortion rights are popular in France and this should be an easy win for the government.
  • 🙄 But right-wing senators are playing dangerous games over language that could derail the project.
  • 💪 The risks of failure are too high: protect the freedom to have an abortion now!

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Bravo to the French National Assembly, which last week passed a motion that would enshrine the freedom to end a pregnancy in the French constitution. It’s the next step along the way to making the proposed constitutional change a reality, 50 years after the reproductive rights pioneer Simone Veil wrote the law decriminalising abortion in France.

I have said it before and I will say it again: abortion is popular. A 2022 survey showed that 86% of people in France supported inscribing the right to abortion in the constitution. Nearly nine out of ten French people say the highest law of the land should support the feminist slogan of the ages: my body, my choice.

Any other proposition so overwhelmingly popular as this would be seen as an easy win by politicians of most stripes, particularly during a crisis of confidence in political institutions during which unpopular measures, like the 2023 retirement reforms, are being rammed through parliament without due process. But the greatest trick the devil (or rather, religious fundamentalists) ever pulled was convincing politicians that abortion is controversial.

Hence, a 2022 proposal by deputies from the left-wing La France Insoumise party to amend the constitution to include the text: “The law guarantees effective and equal access to the right to an abortion” was watered down last year by rightwingers in the Senate, and became “the law determines the conditions under which a woman’s freedom to end her pregnancy is exercised”. Not ideal for a “right” to become a “freedom”, but fine, we can live with it.

Now, another slightly amended text is going back to the Senate for approval, and certain representatives have decided they want to split hairs. The new text hammered out by the government reads: “the law determines the conditions under which a woman’s guaranteed freedom to seek an abortion is exercised”. According to Bruno Retailleau, the president of the right-wing Les Republicains party in the Senate, the concept of a “guaranteed freedom” is a little too close to a “right” to an abortion for some of his colleagues.

Senators, I am urging you to get over it.

Access to free, safe and legal abortion is a fundamental right, no matter which way the political winds blow, and Veil was brave enough to write France’s abortion laws at a time when public support was just 48%. But the fact that the proposition is so popular as well as being a basic human right, makes it all the more absurd that certain politicians should be so afraid of it. This may be a country where gender equality is far from a reality, but it is also one where two-thirds of people identify as feminist. I’m telling you guys, this is an easy one.

My strong hope is that everyone will get together and sort this out. Everything else in politics is so difficult right now, why not get this relatively straightforward thing done? But I am striking a note of warning about what might happen if this proposal fails. France has so far happily avoided sending this issue to a referendum, which, despite the basic popularity of abortion rights, would have been seen as an excuse to register a protest vote against an unpopular government. And trust me, I’m British, I know how that story ends (hello, Brexit).

But I want to talk about my other country, Australia, which recently failed to make an important constitutional change. In 2023, Australians voted ‘No’ to a proposal to recognise First Nations people in the constitution. What this showed me (apart from the fact that my country is racist and has not dealt with the genocidal crime on which it was founded), was how the rejection of a more inclusive constitution can send a message to marginalised people that their rights don’t matter. The ‘No’ vote unleashed a wave of racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and some councils have since abandoned the practice known as ‘Welcome to Country’, in which First Nations elders officially welcome people onto the land which they never ceded during major events. In other words, some people have now stopped doing even the bare minimum to respect the world’s oldest continuous culture, and have used the rejection of constitutional recognition as an excuse to violate the rights of First Australians even further.

In a similar way, if the plan to enshrine abortion in the constitution fails, you can be sure that anti-choice groups will seize on the opportunity to attack abortion rights in France. They are already slapping anti-choice adverts on bicycles around the country, imagine how emboldened they will feel once they realise that politicians are not up to the task of protecting access to abortion?

The president of the Senate, Gérard Larcher of Les Republicains, says he does not support the measure because abortion rights are not under threat in France. To which I say: it’s time to fix the roof while the sun shines. Anti-abortion networks in Europe are real, they are well-funded, well-organised, and just as they did in the United States, they are playing the long game. It is vital that these groups do not see a chance to bring reproductive rights into question and use a failed amendment to attack the rights of women and gender-diverse people across the board.

Enshrining reproductive choice in the constitution will automatically fix many of the real problems people have in seeking abortions here in France. On its own, it will not change the fact that term limits are too short, that abortion deserts exist, that medical shortages happen and that as a result many people are forced to travel within the country or to the UK, Spain and the Netherlands for healthcare that they should be able to receive at home. But at a time of global backlash against the rights of women and gender-diverse people, it will send a message that certain “freedoms”, “guaranteed freedoms” or, yes, “rights” cannot be rolled back on a whim. It will provide the foundation upon which we can build safer, more comprehensive abortion services for all.

Any discussion of constitutional change is an occasion to demonstrate what kind of country we want to be. France has the opportunity to become the first nation to enshrine abortion access in its constitution, to succeed where other nations, like Chile, have failed, and to show that full citizenship of any country depends on the reproductive freedoms of all who live in it. We have the chance to make history. Let’s get it done.

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