France to become first nation to enshrine abortion right in constitution

People hold a banner which reads "Abortion is a fundamental right" during a demonstration organised by the collective "Abortion Europe, women decide" as the French Senate examines a bill to include abortion in the Constitution, at the Place de la Sorbonne in Paris, France, February 28, 2024. PHOTO | REUTERS 

What you need to know:

  • If the congress approves the move, France will become the only country in the world to clearly protect the right to terminate a pregnancy in its basic law.

Paris. French lawmakers are expected on Monday to anchor the right to abortion in the country's constitution, a global first that has garnered overwhelming public support.

A congress of both houses of parliament in Versailles, starting at 3:30 pm (1430 GMT), should find the three-fifths majority needed for the change after it overcame initial resistance in the right-leaning Senate.

If the congress approves the move, France will become the only country in the world to clearly protect the right to terminate a pregnancy in its basic law.

President Emmanuel Macron pledged last year to enshrine abortion -- legal in France since 1975 -- in the constitution after the United States Supreme Court in 2022 overturned the half-century-old right to the procedure, allowing individual American states to ban or curtail it.

In January France's lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, overwhelmingly approved making abortion a "guaranteed freedom" in the constitution.

The upper house, the Senate, followed suit on Wednesday.

The bill is now expected to clear the final hurdle of a combined vote of both chambers when they gather for a rare joint session at the former royal residence of the Palace of Versailles.

Few expect any difficulty finding the needed supermajority after the three-fifths mark was largely exceeded in both previous ballots.

'Woke us up'

When political campaigning began in earnest in 1971, "we could never have imagined that the right to abortion would one day be written into the constitution", Claudine Monteil, head of the Femmes Monde (Women in the World) association, told AFP.

Monteil was the youngest signatory to the "Manifesto of the 343", a 1971 petition that 343 women signed, admitting to having illegally terminated a pregnancy.

At the time, an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 women aborted each year.

Abortion was legalised in France in 1975 in a law championed by health minister Simone Veil, a women's rights icon granted the rare honour of burial at the Pantheon after her death in 2018.

But just a year earlier, in 1974, another leading feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, had warned that "a political, economic or religious crisis" could call women's rights back into question, Monteil said.

In that sense, "the behaviour of the US Supreme Court did women all around the world a favour because it woke us up", she said.

Leah Hoctor, of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said France could offer "the first explicit broad constitutional provision of its kind, not just in Europe, but also globally".

Chile included the right to elective abortion in a draft for a new progressive constitution in 2022 but voters rejected the text in a referendum.

Some countries allude to the right.

Cuba's constitution guarantees women's "reproductive and sexual rights".

And several Balkan states have inherited versions of former Yugoslavia's 1974 constitution that said it was a human right to "decide on the birth of children".

Other states explicitly mention abortion in their constitution but only allow it in specific circumstances, Hoctor said.

Pro-life protest

Most members of the French public support the move to give the right to abortion extra protection.

A November 2022 survey by French polling group IFOP found that 86 percent of French people supported inscribing it in the constitution.

Left-wing and centrist politicians have welcomed the change, while right-wing senators have said in private they felt under pressure to give it a green light.

One said her daughters would "no longer come for Christmas" if she opposed the move.

Abortion opponents, largely marginalised in the move for constitutional change, have planned a protest in Versailles on Monday afternoon.

Macron on Wednesday hailed what he called the Senate's "decisive step" and immediately called the parliamentary congress.

The last time one was called to change the constitution was in 2008, when lawmakers only just approved wide-sweeping reforms under former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Those changes included limiting presidents to two terms in office, as well as better safeguards for press independence and freedom.