Brought to be protected in the Constitution, the freedom to abort has been acquired on paper for almost 50 years in France. In the field, however, access to abortion remains unequal and the choice of method limited, according to professionals, researchers and feminist associations.
Voluntary termination of pregnancy (abortion), at the heart of a constitutional bill presented Wednesday in the Council of Ministers, was temporarily authorized in 1975, before being definitively legalized in December 1979, until the tenth week of pregnancy.
Since then, the Veil law has been expanded: the legal period was extended to 12 then 14 weeks, abortion is now 100% covered and its practice extended to midwives. According to the latest official figures, 234,300 abortions were recorded in France in 2022.
“Yes, things have improved a lot since 1975,” notes the president of the Women’s Foundation Anne-Cécile Mailfert. “But we must allow these women to be able to have an abortion in good conditions. But this is not always the case today,” she adds, citing, among other things, the closure of “many local maternity wards.
According to data from Drees (the statistics department for health and social ministries), the number of maternity hospitals in mainland France increased from 1,369 in 1975 to 458 in 2020.
At the same time, 130 abortion centers have been closed in 15 years according to Family Planning.
“As a result, more and more women are forced to make long car journeys to access an abortion,” observes Sarah Durocher, president of Planning. “In certain territories, certain weeks, there is no opportunity to perform abortions. This is not bearable in 2023.”
Contraception in France / AFP/Archives
“Depending on where she is, a woman who wishes to have an abortion will not have the same professionals or the same local culture in front of her regarding the consideration of this care,” adds Magali Mazuy, researcher. at the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED), describing access to abortion as “non-homogeneous”.
The observation is not new. In 2019, the government already recognized “territories in tension in the majority of regions” in terms of access to abortion, “either due to the demographics of professionals, or during the summer periods”.
“It remains a taboo”
The following year, the National Consultative Ethics Committee (CCNE) again pointed to a “range of factors” – including territorial inequalities – likely to prevent a woman wishing to have an abortion from doing so within the legal time limit.
Demonstration for abortion to be included in the Constitution, July 2, 2022 in Paris / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP/Archives
The choice of method is more restricted. Lighter in terms of treatment, the medicinal method has taken precedence over the surgical (or instrumental) method which is practiced by aspiration under local or general anesthesia. In 2022, 78% of total abortions performed were medical.
“We know that there are women who would have preferred to have an instrumental abortion,” indicates Sophie Gaudu, co-founder of Revho, the network providing access to abortion care in Ile-de-France. “Women must have the choice of method, and we need professionals to offer it to them.”
Feminist associations also regret the maintenance of the conscience clause specific to abortion, a “stigmatizing double” for women wishing to have an abortion while there is a general conscience clause for all types of medical procedures.
Because 50 years after the law, “abortion remains a taboo” and “women who practice it are stigmatized,” declares Anne-Cécile Mailfert. As proof, the cyberharassment of which the host Enora Malagré was the victim, after having said that she had aborted twice.
“It is all the more important in this context to reaffirm the fundamental nature of the right to abortion and not leave any victory to the anti-abortionists,” adds the head of the Women’s Foundation.
Demonstration for the right to abortion to be included in the French Constitution, February 1, 2023 in Paris / Ludovic MARIN / AFP/Archives
For opponents of abortion, “it is not abortion that is threatened in France today” but rather “the possibility for women who wish to continue their pregnancy and to access balanced information “, deplores Caroline Roux, deputy general director of Alliance Vita.
A “march for life” is planned for January 21 in Paris. Its organizers are calling for a compulsory ultrasound from the sixth week of pregnancy, making it possible to “hear the fetal heart beat”, or even a three-day reflection period before any abortion.