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Why France enshrined abortion rights in its constitution

March 4, 2024

Compared to many other Western countries, France has always been more supportive of abortion rights. French lawmakers are determined to ensure there won't be setbacks.

French activists dressed in white, protesting.
French parties and activists advocate for constitutionalizing abortion rights to prevent changes when a more conservative government comes into powerImage: Michel Stoupak/NurPhoto/picture alliance

French lawmakers have convened in a special session and voted to amend the Constitution, making France a pioneer in enshrining the freedom to undergo abortion. It's the first country in the world to explicitly include and protect the right to abortion in the constitution.

The special gathering follows a pivotal move by the French Senate, which voted on Wednesday, February 28, 2024, to guarantee access to the procedure constitutionally.

However, the journey leading to this moment stretches far back in time. It marks the culmination of a parliamentary process initiated on November 24, 2022, when the National Assembly, or the lower house of the French Parliament, passed a bill proposed by the left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI) party.

Here are a few key points about France's campaign for abortion freedom and how it compares to the rest of Europe.

Abortion rights are popular in France, even among right-wing politicians

In a late January 2024 session, members of the French National Assembly overwhelmingly threw their weight behind the inclusion of "the freedom to have an abortion" in the French constitution.

Out of approximately 500 MPs participating in the vote, merely 30 conservative MPs and independents opposed the bill. 

View inside the French Senate in Paris
Both chambers of the French Parliament have voted in favor of constitutionalizing abortion freedom in separate sessions.Image: Blondet Eliot/ABACA/picture alliance

Public opinion in France is strongly in favor of abortion rights, as shown by several surveys. According to a 2022 poll by French polling firm IFOP, 86% of French citizens favored including abortion rights in the constitution.

The far-right National Rally party generally supports abortion rights, but it's still a controversial topic within their group. Out of their 88 MPs, 46 voted for the change, including Marine Le Pen, the party's leader. Twelve MPs voted against it, and 14 abstained.

France has a long history of supporting abortion rights

Before 2022, many lawmakers didn't think adding abortion rights to the constitution was necessary because women already had the right and access to abortion.

The voluntary ending of pregnancy became legal in France in 1975 with a law named after Simone Veil, the health minister who supported it. The law allowed abortion up to the tenth week of pregnancy. Later, it was extended to the 12th week in 2001 and then to the 14th week in 2022. Since the 1980s, the procedure has been covered by France's national healthcare system.

Close-up of two hands passing mifepristone pills to another hand.
France was one of the first countries to legalize the use of Mifepristone as an abortifacient.Image: Charlie Riedel/AP/picture alliance

How France compares to the US and Europe

Campaigners hail France's constitutional amendment as a groundbreaking move that backs women's reproductive rights against political reversals and setbacks.

Supported by French President Emmanuel Macron, the bill has been seen as a response to the aftershocks of the US Supreme Court's decision to repeal federal abortion rights on June 24, 2022.

Demonstrators rally in support of abortion rights at the US Supreme Court in Washington.
France's move to enshrine abortion freedom in the constitution is widely interpreted as a response to US states' restrictions on it.Image: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP

After that decision, several states in the US either banned abortions outright, with very few exceptions, or imposed highly restrictive access measures.

In Europe, there's been a trend towards liberalizing abortion laws, although access conditions vary widely across countries. The legal limit until what point in the pregnancy someone can have an abortion also varies: 24 weeks in the Netherlands, 18 weeks in Sweden, 14 weeks in France and Luxembourg, and 12 weeks in Ireland and Denmark.

In several EU member states, right-wing populist movements have implemented policies aiming to curtail or complicate access to abortion.

Malta prohibits abortion except in cases threatening the mother's or the fetus's life.

Similarly in Poland, a 2020 ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal outlawed abortions due to fetal defects, effectively imposing a ban from early 2021, except in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the mother's life. The eastern European country's new government is poised to ease the near-total abortion ban, but the right-wing President Andrzej Duda could still veto that move. 

In Hungary, although abortion has been legal up to 12 weeks since 1953, rules were tightened in 2022. Women seeking abortions are required to listen to the fetal heartbeat beforehand, and counseling is compulsory.

Italy's right-wing Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, opposes abortion but pledges not to alter existing laws. She has repeatedly stated that she wants to give women "the right to not have an abortion" and ensure that other options are pointed out to them.

Meanwhile, in predominantly Catholic countries like Spain, Malta, and Hungary, many doctors and healthcare providers refuse to perform abortions on moral or religious grounds, limiting women's access to a timely and safe procedure.

A 2023 survey across 24 European Union member states revealed that approximately 71% of adults support legal abortion in most or all cases, while around 27% oppose it.

Fighting for abortion rights - Polish women’s struggle

Edited by: Carla Bleiker