PARIS — French lawmakers on Thursday backed a proposal to enshrine the right to abortion in the country’s Constitution, in a move designed as a direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer.
But the bill, passed by the National Assembly, the lower and most powerful house of the French parliament, will have to go through a complex legislative process and face possible opposition in the Senate, before the Constitution can be amended, leaving enough time and opportunity for legislators or voters to ultimately reject it.
Yet Thursday’s vote was a symbolic step at a time when abortion rights are increasingly contested among France’s European neighbors. In Italy, the family minister of a new far-right government has spoken out against abortion, in Spain many doctors deny the procedures, and last year Poland implemented a ban. almost total abortion.
“No one can predict the future,” Mathilde Panot, leader of the far-left France Insoumise party, who backed the bill, told the National Assembly, adding that the proposal was intended to “ward off the fear that seizes when women’s rights are attacked elsewhere.
The effort to make abortion a constitutional right was prompted by the rollback of abortion rights in the United States in June, which sent shockwaves through European countries and was seen as a red flag. by many in France.
“History is full of examples of fundamental freedoms taken for granted and yet destroyed with the stroke of a pen by events, crises or ground waves,” said Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti on Thursday. “And this is even truer when it comes to women’s rights.”
Abortion in France was decriminalized in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade, under a landmark law championed by Simone Veil. Although no political party is questioning this legalization today, debates raged Thursday on the advisability of modifying the Constitution.
Some lawmakers argued that such a move was unnecessary because the right to abortion was not under threat in France, while others complained that the bill’s broad wording could allow for a new extension of the legal limits for terminating a pregnancy, which currently stands at 14 weeks.
Fabien Di Filippo, a centre-right MP who abstained from voting, denounced those who “want to open the door to a possibly unlimited right in time”.
Hundreds of amendments were proposed to change the bill, many on unrelated issues like immigration and the environment, in what sometimes looked like a filibuster.
“I’m not sure that this type of debate this morning does us honor,” an exasperated centrist deputy, Bertrand Pancher, told his colleagues, deploring the absence of a substantive debate.
There were also moments in the discussion when lawmakers were visibly moved by emotion.
Aurore Bergé, leader of President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party in the National Assembly, told her colleagues about her mother’s dangerous and painful abortion, which took place while it was still criminalized.
Ms Bergé called on lawmakers to pass the bill “on behalf of all women, on behalf of all our mothers who fought, on behalf of all our daughters who no longer have to fight, I hope” .
The initial draft included a proposal to also constitutionalize the right to contraception. But left-leaning lawmakers have reached an agreement with Renaissance, which has a relative majority in parliament, to drop the proposal and focus solely on abortion rights, hoping to win future approval. of the bill by the Senate.
After the day of debate, the bill was approved by an overwhelming majority of 337 votes to 32, with 18 abstentions. It was a rare example of bipartisanship in an otherwise factionalized Parliament.
More than 80% of French people support protecting the right to abortion in the Constitution, according to a poll published this summer by IFOP, one of France’s most respected polling companies. A recent petition supporting the bill has been signed by over 160,000 people.
But it may be months before the right to abortion is enshrined in the Constitution, if the bill goes that far.
The bill now goes to the right-wing Senate, which could reject it, as it did last month when a group of senators put forward a similar proposal. And even if the bill passes the Senate, it will then have to be approved in a national referendum, in accordance with the procedures for amending the Constitution – a cumbersome process that could have unpredictable political results.
This year, the French parliament extended the legal deadlines for terminating a pregnancy from 12 to 14 weeks amid heated political debate and despite Mr Macron’s reluctance on the issue. But France’s new deadline remains lower than that of some European countries such as the Netherlands and Great Britain, where it is set at 24 weeks.