April 25th, 2024

French lawmakers approve a bill that makes abortion a constitutional right

By Barbara Surk And Nicolas Garriga, The Associated Press on March 4, 2024.

PARIS (AP) – French lawmakers approved a bill that will enshrine a woman’s right to an abortion in the French Constitution during a historic joint session of parliament in at the Palace of Versailles on Monday.

The bill was approved in an overwhelming 780-72 vote, and nearly the entire joint session stood in a long standing ovation.

There were jubilant scenes of celebrations all over France as women’s rights activists hailed the measure promised by President Emmanuel Macron following a rollback of abortion rights in court rulings in the United States.

Both houses of parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate, have already adopted a bill to amend Article 34 of the French Constitution to specify a woman’s right to an abortion is guaranteed.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

PARIS (AP) – A bill to enshrine a woman’s right to an abortion in the French Constitution goes to a historic vote on Monday, as lawmakers gathered for a joint session of parliament at the Palace of Versailles on Monday.

The measure was promised by President Emmanuel Macron following a rollback of abortion rights in court rulings in the United States.

Macron’s government wants Article 34 of the French Constitution amended 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.”

With both houses of parliament having adopted the bill, Monday’s joint session is expected to be largely a formality.

In the lead up to the historic vote, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal addressed the 925 lawmakers 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 defense of women’s rights for countries around the world.

“We have a moral debt to women,” Attal said. He paid tribute to Simone Veil, a prominent legislator, former health minister and key feminist who in 1975 championed the bill that decriminalized abortion in France.

“We have a chance to change history,” 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 Macron’s government, intended to make “a woman’s right to have an abortion irreversible.”

The measure must be approved by a three-fifths majority in the joint session.

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 lawmakers have voted against inscribing abortion right into the constitution in previous votes in both houses.

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 favor of the bill but added that “there is no need to make this a historic day.”

The right to an abortion has broad support among the French public. A recent poll showed support at over 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.

There were scenes of celebrations around France ahead of the historical joint parliament session.

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-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.

The decision by the U.S. 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.

Mathilde Philip-Gay, a law professor and a specialist in French and American constitutional law, warned against easing the pressure on legislators for women’s rights as far right parties – determined to curtail women’s rights – gain political influence and are elected to form governments around Europe and elsewhere.

“It may not be an issue in France, where a majority of people support abortion,” Philip-Gay said. “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 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.

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Barbara Surk reported from Nice, France.

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