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Responding to US, France enshrines abortion access in constitution

In historic joint session, French lawmakers overwhelmingly approve constitutional right to abortion

A message reading “My body my choice” is projected onto the Eiffel Tower, after the French parliament voted to anchor the right to abortion in the country’s constitution, in Paris on Monday.
A message reading “My body my choice” is projected onto the Eiffel Tower, after the French parliament voted to anchor the right to abortion in the country’s constitution, in Paris on Monday. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images)

VERSAILLES, France — French lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to codify abortion access in their constitution Monday — a move directly inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“I was inspired by the fact that in the U.S. abortion rights were not in the Constitution,” French Senator Mélanie Vogel, the progressive politician who filed the amendment, told CQ Roll Call ahead of the dual-chamber vote. 

“Reproductive and sexual rights are shrinking in the world. And here today we want to show that this is not the only path that you can follow. … It can be reversed,” she said.

In France and across the European Union, women have long faced a first-trimester limit on elective abortions with very little of the outcry that similar proposals have sparked on the other side of the Atlantic. 

But the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade changed all of that.

Before that, France followed America’s lead on reproductive rights for decades. One year after the U.S. Supreme Court granted unmarried couples access to birth control in 1972, France authorized free access to the pill for all. Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973, France decriminalized the procedure.

But after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, France moved to expand abortion access, and Parliament voted to extend the legal time for at-will abortion under any circumstances from the 12th to the 14th week of pregnancy. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to enshrine abortion in the French Constitution. 

“We’re watching closely what’s happening in the U.S.,” Mathilde Panot, the French assemblywoman who filed the amendment in the National Assembly, told CQ Roll Call ahead of the vote in the congress chamber of the Palace of Versailles.

“This shock made everyone realize that abortion rights can be jeopardized at any moment. Because it was simply legislation. Now it’s a value in our constitution, the recognition of abortion as a fundamental right.”

The amendment

With Monday’s vote, which required a three-fifths majority of the National Assembly and Senate, France has become the first country to enshrine abortion access in its constitution. France requires the two chambers to vote in a joint session on a constitutional amendment. The French Senate approved the bill last week, and the National Assembly did the same in January.

The final vote count on Monday was 780 lawmakers in favor of the amendment and just 72 against.

The amendment enshrines “the freedom of women to have recourse to an abortion, which is guaranteed.” 

French lawmakers argued that abortion access is being rolled back all over the world, repeatedly pointing to the U.S. and Poland as proof, and argued that France should guarantee abortion access through the first trimester to guard against any future populist tide.

“It is always too late if we wait until a right is threatened to protect it,” Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti told senators during last week’s vote.

Republicans pointing to Europe

The French first-trimester abortion limit has been seized upon by U.S. Republicans who claim 15-week abortion bans are in line with similar restrictions in France and other countries. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. both cited European abortion limits in their consideration of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization when discussing Mississippi’s 15-week abortion limit.

Roberts, in oral arguments, pointed to Europe and said 15 weeks “is the standard the vast majority of other countries have”, while Alito, in the court’s ruling, cited a study justifying Mississippi’s abortion restrictions by comparing them to the European limit.

In recent weeks, former president and likely 2024 Republican nominee Donald Trump has expressed interest in a 15-week national abortion ban. 

Roger Severino, who is part of the Heritage Foundation’s 2025 Presidential Transition Project and was a Trump administration appointee, said that Europeans “tend to actually recognize a right to life in their laws explicitly.”

“That’s something that we can take as a good example of what some European countries do,” Severino said about the majority of European countries with first-trimester abortion limits.

But although French law limits at-will abortion to 14 weeks of pregnancy, or about 16 weeks gestational age, the country provides a plethora of medical exceptions, including for fetal malformations, harm to the mother’s health, and, in some cases, psychological or economic distress. 

The French also have a system of health and social support, such as free health care and contraception, paid maternity and paternity leave, and free child care, among other things, that make it easier for its citizens to become parents.

Anu Kumar, president and CEO of Ipas Partners for Reproductive Justice, said the comparison between U.S. and French abortion policy is not a fair one because the French system is so different from the U.S.

“The French just have so many threads in their safety net that we have not even picked up,” Kumar said. 

Public sentiment

Abortion access is extremely popular among the French public, with over 80 percent of citizens supporting the amendment, according to a survey from the French polling company IFOP.

But even critics of the constitutional amendment aren’t necessarily against abortion access. Most of those arguing against the amendment said abortion access isn’t threatened in France, so there’s no need to add a social right to the constitution. 

Still, a few hundred anti-abortion protesters gathered outside the Palace de Versailles during the vote, many holding white roses and praying.

Arnaud Manchon, a man from a nearby suburb of Versailles, came out to protest the constitutional amendment because he thought it “was one of the last occasions to say no to this,” even though he figured the measure would probably pass easily. He said many people in France are like him and opposed to abortion, but they feel “oppressed by the media” so they are afraid to come forward with their anti-abortion views. 

“People think because of how things are in the [United] States it might be like this in France,” Manchon said of those who support the amendment. 

“The vote won’t change anything because there is no party, nobody in France who wants to remove abortion from this nation. They don’t know what they’re doing, they just want to be more progressive.”

In the run-up to the vote, abortion became more politicized in France. An abortion clinic in northern France run by Le Planning Familial, a group similar to Planned Parenthood, was found covered in anti-abortion graffiti the night of Feb. 19. The president of Le Planning Familial, Sarah Durocher, said on X that the graffiti was “part of a continuum of targeted attacks against Family Planning, feminist and popular education associations.”

CNews, a conservative French news network often compared to Fox News, called abortion the number one cause of death around the world. The comment sparked such a controversy that the network apologized  just days before the Senate vote.

Philippe Deruelle, an OB-GYN who performs abortions in Montpellier, said at first he did not think the constitutional amendment was necessary because women have access to the procedure where he works, but the broadcast “completely changed my mind.”

” I was very, very anxious about this broadcast,” Deruelle said. “And then I was thinking that maybe in a couple of years [France] might have concerns like you have in the U.S., so then it might be good to put the abortion in the constitution.”

This story is part of a reporting fellowship sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists and supported by The Commonwealth Fund.

Siobhán Silke contributed to this report.  

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