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France makes abortion a constitutional right

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French lawmakers on Monday overwhelmingly approved a bill to enshrine abortion rights in France’s constitution, making it the only country to explicitly guarantee a woman’s right to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy.

The historic move was proposed by President Emmanuel Macron as a way to prevent the kind of rollback of abortion rights seen in the United States in recent years, and the vote during a special joint session of France’s parliament drew a long-standing ovation among lawmakers.

The measure was approved in a 780-72 vote in the Palace of Versailles. Abortion enjoys wide support in France across most of the political spectrum, and has been legal since 1975.

Many female legislators in the hall smiled broadly as they cheered. While a small group of protesters stood outside the joint session, there were jubilant scenes of celebrations all over France as women’s rights activists hailed the measure promised by Macron within hours of the Dobbs ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022.

The U.S. decision has reverberated across Europe’s political landscape, forcing the issue back into public debate in some countries at a time when far-right nationalist parties are gaining influence.

Both houses of France’s parliament, the National Assembly and Senate, had separately adopted a bill to amend Article 34 of the French Constitution, but the amendment needed final confirmation by a three-fifths majority in the special joint session. The measure specifies that “the law determines the conditions by which is exercised the freedom of women to have recourse to an abortion, which is guaranteed.”

The French measure is seen as going a step further than was the case in the former Yugoslavia, whose 1974 constitution said that “a person is free to decide on having children.” Yugoslavia dissolved in the early 1990s, and all its successor states have adopted similar measures in their constitutions that legally enable women to have an abortion, though they do not explicitly guarantee it.

In the lead-up to the vote, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal addressed the more than 900 lawmakers gathered for the joint session in Versailles, and called on them to make France a leader in women’ s rights conservative Republicans.

Le Pen, who won a record number of seats in the National Assembly two years ago, said on Monday that her party planned to vote in favor of the bill but added that “there is no need to make this a historic day.”

A recent poll showed support for abortion rights among the French public at more than 80%, consistent with previous surveys. The same poll also showed that a solid majority of people are in favor of enshrining it in the constitution.

A group of about 200 anti-abortion protesters gathered soberly in Versailles ahead of the vote, some holding a banner reading: ‘‘I too was an embryo.’’

A larger crowd of women’s rights activists gathered at Trocadero Plaza overlooking the Eiffel Tower, letting out a collective cry of joy as the vote results came in. Others celebrated around France even before the joint parliamentary session began.

Sarah Durocher, a leader in the Family Planning movement, said Monday’s vote is “a victory for feminists and a defeat for the anti-choice activists.”

“We increased the level of protection to this fundamental right,” said Anne-Cécile Mailfert of the Women’s Foundation. “It’s a guarantee for women today and in the future to have the right to abort in France.”

The government argued in its introduction to the bill that the right to abortion is threatened in the United States, where the Supreme Court in 2022 overturned a 50-year-old ruling that used to guarantee it.

“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,” the introduction to the French legislation says.

“It may not be an issue in France, where a majority of people support abortion,” said Mathilde Philip-Gay, a law professor and a specialist in French and American constitutional law. “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.”

Inscribing abortion into the French Constitution “will make it harder for abortion opponents of the future to challenge these rights, but it won’t prevent them from doing it in the long run, with the right political strategy,” Philip-Gay added.

“It only takes a moment for everything we thought that we have achieved to fade away,” said Yael Braun-Pivet, the first female president of the French parliament, in her address to the joint session.

Amending the constitution is a laborious process and a rare event in France. Since it was enacted in 1958, the French Constitution has been amended 17 times.

The justice minister said the new amendment will be formally inscribed into the Constitution at a public ceremony at Vendome Plaza in Paris on Friday — International Women’s Day.

Source: Associated Press

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