Why France chose to enshrine abortion in its Constitution

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Marie Fontanel - The Philippine Star

It’s April... but we still need to talk about women’s rights! March, traditionally known as Women’s Month, has come and gone, but the advocacy work doesn’t stop. Every day of the year, as part of its feminist diplomacy, France continues its resolute action in favor of women’s rights, including sexual and reproductive rights.

I always heard my mother tell her daughters that the pill was the greatest feminist revolution, allowing women to choose freely if and when they wanted to have a child. Access to contraception is clearly the priority of our public health policy. Yet there are still cases of unwanted pregnancy. In such cases, the recourse may be the voluntary termination of pregnancy. Whether this recourse is legal or not, women often make this choice. It’s a reality that Simone Veil, the French Health Minister, described in November 1974 when she presented the bill decriminalizing abortion in France to the National Assembly, in words that still resonate strongly today:

“I say this with all my conviction: abortion must remain the exception, the last resort for situations where there is no way out (...) No woman resorts to abortion out of the goodness of her heart, you just have to listen to women. It’s always a tragedy, it will always be a tragedy.” But authorizing it in order to better control it had become a necessary measure in the name of freedom, equality and women’s health.

Fifty years after this bill, on March 8, 2024, France became the first country in the world to enshrine the right to voluntary termination of pregnancy in its Constitution. This is a major political milestone and an opportunity for me to look back over the years of feminist struggle in France to recognize women’s right to choose. The Bobigny trial was the high point of this battle.

In November 1971, Marie-Claire Chevalier, 16, was raped by one of her friends. Daniel, 18, takes Marie-Claire home on the pretext of organizing a party and rapes her, threatening her with a pair of scissors.

As a result of this coerced intercourse, Marie-Claire became pregnant. It was “unimaginable” for her to have a child, let alone one born of rape. She confided in her mother, Michèle Chevalier, a working mum who had raised her three daughters alone.

The two women were from modest backgrounds and had no money to go abroad for an abortion, as wealthy women did. At the time, women who couldn’t afford this luxury used other, much riskier methods: toxic products, knitting needles or catheters... Michèle and three other women, known at the time as “angel makers,” helped Marie-Claire to have an abortion.

She suffered a hemorrhage and was hospitalized. She managed to recover. But her rapist reported her to the police and she was prosecuted in the juvenile court. Her mother and the women who helped her were summoned to court for a second trial. They faced up to five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 francs.

The case became political when Michèle Chevalier asked Attorney Gisèle Halimi, a defender of women’s causes, to represent them; the lawyer chose to make it a symbolic trial to put an end to a law that criminalized abortion and endangered the lives of women who performed it clandestinely.

This story had a happy ending: Michèle and Marie-Claire Chevalier were acquitted and three years later, in 1975, the law legalizing voluntary termination of pregnancy was passed in France.

How many other similar stories have tragic endings around the world today?

According to the World Health Organization, between 39,000 and 47,000 women die every year as a result of unsafe abortion. Unsafe abortion is one of the main causes of maternal death and the only one that can be prevented.

Health professionals and NGO workers tell of lives shattered and destroyed by an unwanted pregnancy. There are teenage girls who want to continue their studies, women who have been raped, others who thought they had reached menopause. They ingest chemicals and mutilate their belly, determined to have an abortion whatever the cost. It is this legitimate desire to control one’s own destiny that leads to these desperate acts, the physical and psychological consequences of which are well known: infections, hemorrhaging, infertility, damage to the genital system, when the outcome is not fatal.

At least 40 percent of the world’s women live in countries with restrictive abortion legislation, where the tragedies continue.

By taking this symbolic step, France is guaranteeing a fundamental human right, and irrevocably protecting the freedoms and health of women who have recourse to abortion. It is also a signal that France is sending out to women and girls around the world in an international context where their fundamental rights, although taken for granted, are suffering backlash. Throughout the world, women’s freedoms are being eroded.

For France, the next step will be to promote the inclusion of abortion in the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. This will give rise to debate, as was the case last year in France. But it is the very essence of democracy to be able to discuss all subjects, even the most sensitive ones.

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Marie Fontanel is the Ambassador of France to the Philippines.

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