World

Bill approved in France that makes abortion a constitutional right

There were jubilant scenes of celebration all over France.

The vote makes abortion a constitutional right (Thomas Padilla/AP)
Congress of both houses of parliament at the Palace of Versailles The vote makes abortion a constitutional right (Thomas Padilla/AP) (Thomas Padilla/AP)

French politicians have overwhelmingly approved a bill that will enshrine a woman’s right to an abortion in the country’s constitution.

The historic move is designed to prevent the kind of rollback of abortion rights seen in the United States in recent years.

In an exceptional joint session of parliament convened at the Palace of Versailles, the bill was approved in a 780-72 vote.

Abortion enjoys wide support in France across most of the political spectrum, and has been legal since 1975.

The vote makes France the first country to have a constitutional right to abortion since the former Yugoslavia inscribed it in its 1974 constitution.

Serbia’s 2006 constitution carries on that spirit, stating that “everyone has the right to decide on childbirth”.

Nearly the entire hall in France stood in a long standing ovation, and many female legislators in the hall smiled broadly as they cheered.

There were jubilant scenes of celebration all over France as women’s rights activists hailed the measure promised by President Emmanuel Macron immediately following the Dobbs ruling by the US Supreme Court in 2022.

Both houses of parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate, had already adopted a bill to amend Article 34 of the French constitution to specify that “the law determines the conditions by which is exercised the freedom of women to have recourse to an abortion, which is guaranteed”.

In the lead up to the historic vote, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal addressed the 925 politicians gathered for the joint session in Versailles, and called on them to make France a leader in women’s rights and set an example in defence of women’s rights for countries around the world.

“We have a moral debt to women,” Mr Attal said.

He paid tribute to Simone Veil, a prominent legislator, former health minister and key feminist who in 1975 championed the bill that decriminalised abortion in France.

“We have a chance to change history,” Mr Attal said in a moving and determined speech. “Make Simone Veil proud,” he said to a standing ovation.

The lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, overwhelmingly approved the proposal in January. The Senate adopted the bill on Wednesday, clearing a key hurdle for legislation promised by Mr Macron’s government, intended to make “a woman’s right to have an abortion irreversible”.

A three-fifths majority in the joint session was required for the measure to be approved.

None of France’s major political parties represented in parliament have questioned the right to abortion, including Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party and the conservative Republicans. However, some politicians have voted against inscribing abortion right into the constitution in previous votes in both houses.

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

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal speaks during the session (Thomas Padilla/AP)
French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal speaks during the session (Thomas Padilla/AP) (Thomas Padilla/AP)

The right to an abortion has broad support among the French public. A recent poll showed support at more than 80%, consistent with previous surveys. The same poll also showed that a solid majority of people are in favour of enshrining it in the constitution.

There were scenes of celebration 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”.

With the right to an abortion added to the constitution, it will be much harder to prevent women from voluntarily terminating a pregnancy in France, women’s rights and equality activists said.

“We increased the level of protection to this fundamental right,” said Anne-Cecile 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.

The decision by the US Supreme Court to strip women of the right to abortion has reverberated across Europe’s political landscape, forcing the issue back into public debate in France at a time of political upheaval.

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 last time was in 2008, when parliament was awarded more powers and French citizens were granted the right to bring their grievances to the Constitutional Court.