PARIS — French lawmakers on Thursday backed a proposal to enshrine abortion rights in the country’s constitution, in a move meant in direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Plunging Wade this summer.
But the bill, passed by the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of France’s parliament, must go through a complex legislative process and potentially face opposition in the Senate before the constitution can be amended, leaving ample time and opportunity for lawmakers or voters to ultimately reject them.
Still, Thursday’s vote was a symbolic milestone at a time when abortion rights are increasingly being challenged in France’s European neighbors. In Italy, the family minister of a new far-right government has spoken out against abortion, in Spain many doctors deny the procedures, and Poland last year enacted a near-total ban on abortion.
“Nobody can predict the future,” Mathilde Panot, leader of the far-left party France Unbowed, which backed the bill, told the National Assembly, adding that the proposal was meant to ward off “the fear that grips us when women on the right will be attacked elsewhere.”
Efforts to make abortion a constitutional right were sparked by the repeal 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.
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“History is full of examples of fundamental freedoms that were taken for granted and yet were wiped out with the stroke of a pen by events, crises or bumps,” Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said on Thursday. “And that’s even more true when it comes to women’s rights.”
Abortion was decriminalized in France in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade, under a landmark law championed by Simone Veil. Although no political party today questions this legalization, debates raged on Thursday over whether the constitution should be changed.
Some lawmakers argued that such a move was unnecessary as abortion rights were not under threat in France, while others complained that the draft law’s broad wording could allow for a further extension of the legal time limits for terminating a pregnancy, which are currently at 14 weeks.
Fabien Di Filippo, a centre-right MEP who abstained, denounced those who “want to open the door to a possibly perpetual right”.
Hundreds of amendments were tabled to change the law, including many on unrelated issues like immigration and the environment, in what at times looked like a filibuster.
“I’m not sure that this kind of debate does us any credit this morning,” a disgruntled centre-right MP, Bertrand Pancher, told his colleagues, bemoaning the lack of a substantive debate.
There were also moments in the discussion when the legislator was visibly touched.
Aurore Bergé, leader of President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party in the National Assembly, told her colleagues about her mother’s dangerous and painful abortion, which took place when she was still a criminal.
Woman. Bergé urged lawmakers to vote for the law “on behalf of all women, on behalf of all our mothers who fought, on behalf of all our daughters who hopefully no longer have to fight”.
The original draft contained a proposal to also constitution the right to contraception. But left-wing lawmakers agreed with Renaissance, which has a relative majority in Parliament, to drop the proposal and instead focus only on abortion rights, hoping to win future Senate approval.
After the day of debate, the bill passed overwhelmingly by 337 votes to 32, with 18 abstentions. It was a rare example of bipartisanship in an otherwise factional parliament.
More than 80 percent of French people support abortion rights being protected by the constitution, according to a poll released this summer by IFOP, one of France’s most respected pollsters. A recent petition supporting the bill was signed by over 160,000 people.
But it may be months before abortion rights are enshrined in the constitution if the bill goes that far.
The bill now goes to the right-wing Senate, which may reject it, as happened last month when a group of senators presented a similar proposal. And even if the law passes the Senate, it must then be approved in a statewide referendum under constitutional amendment procedures — a cumbersome process that could have unpredictable political outcomes.
This year, the French parliament amid a heated political debate and despite Mr Macron’s reluctance on the issue. But France’s new timeframe remains lower than some European countries like the Netherlands and the UK, where it stands at 24 weeks.