PARIS — French lawmakers on Thursday backed a proposal to enshrine abortion rights 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 more powerful house of France’s parliament, will have to go through a complicated legislative process and possibly face opposition in the Senate before the constitution can be amended, leaving plenty of time and space. chance for legislators or voters to ultimately reject it.
Still, Thursday’s vote was a symbolic milestone at a time when abortion rights are increasingly being challenged in France’s European neighbours. In Italy, the minister of family affairs in a new far-right government has spoken out against abortion, in Spain many doctors deny the procedures and last year Poland introduced an almost total ban on abortion.
“No one can predict the future,” Mathilde Panot, the head of the far-left party France Unbowed, which supported the bill, told the National Assembly, adding that the bill was intended “to ward off the fears that have left us in holds its grip when women’s rights are attacked elsewhere.”
The push 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 replete with examples of fundamental freedoms that were taken for granted and yet were swept away with the stroke of a pen by events, crises or tidal waves,” Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti said on Thursday. “And this is even more true when it comes to women’s rights.”
Abortion in France was decriminalized in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade, under a groundbreaking law championed by Simone Veil. While no political party is questioning this legalization today, debates raged on Thursday over whether or not to change the constitution.
Some lawmakers argued that such a move was not necessary because the right to abortion was not threatened in France, while others complained that the bill’s broad wording would allow further extension of legal limits on termination of pregnancy, which currently 14 weeks.
Fabien Di Filippo, a centre-right MP who abstained from voting, denounced those who want to “open the door to a right that may be unlimited in time.”
Hundreds of amendments were tabled to change the bill, including many on unrelated issues such as immigration and the environment, in what at times seemed like a filibuster.
“I’m not sure this kind of debate this morning does us any credit,” Bertrand Pancher, an exasperated centrist lawmaker, told his colleagues, lamenting that there was no substantial debate.
There were also moments in the discussion when legislators were visibly moved.
Aurore Bergé, the leader of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, Renaissance, in the National Assembly, told her colleagues about her mother’s dangerous and painful abortion, which took place when it was still a criminal offense.
Ms Bergé called on lawmakers to vote in favor of the bill “in the name of all women, in the name of all our mothers who fought, in the name of all our daughters who no longer have to fight, I hope.”
The first draft contained a proposal to also constitutionalize the right to contraception. But left-wing lawmakers reached an agreement with Renaissance, which has a relative majority in parliament, to drop the bill and instead focus only on abortion rights, hoping the future senate will pass the bill.
After the day of debate, the bill passed by an overwhelming majority of 337 to 32 with 18 abstentions. It was a rare example of bipartisanship in an otherwise fractional parliament.
More than 80 percent of French people are in favor of protecting abortion rights under the constitution, according to a poll released this summer by IFOP, one of France’s most respected pollsters. A recent petition in support of the bill has been signed by more than 160,000 people.
But it could be months before abortion rights are enshrined in the constitution, if the bill gets that far.
The bill will now go to the right-wing senate, which may vote it down, as it did last month when a group of senators presented a similar proposal. And even if the bill passes the Senate, it must be approved in a nationwide referendum, in accordance with the procedures for amending the Constitution — a cumbersome process that can have unpredictable political results.
This year, the French parliament extended the legal limits for terminating a pregnancy from 12 to 14 weeks amid heated political debate and despite Mr Macron’s reticence on the matter. But France’s new time frame remains lower than some European countries such as the Netherlands and Britain, where it is set at 24 weeks.
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