The Path to Choice: Abortion in France

January 22, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wadedecision. All month, we’ll be running posts examining various aspects of this landmark ruling. If you’d like to contribute, let us know!

The right to choose and perform abortion in France dates from 1975, thanks to the Veil Act (named for the Minister of Health Simone Veil, who proposed and defended the law). Before that, the 1920 Act forbade any incitement to contraceptive and abortion, which was considered a crime. Under the Vichy regime during the World War II, abortion was a crime against state security and punishable by the death penalty—in 1943, for example, Madame Marie-Louise Giraud, who practiced abortions to provide for her family during German occupation, was guillotined. During the early 1970s, the country saw an increase in activism in favor of the right to choose abortion; the 1972 Bobigny Case, in which a teen rape victim risked her life to obtain an illegal abortion, caused a groundswell of opinion that led to the Veil Act.

The importance of the Bobigny case

In the fall of 1972, the Bobigny case drew national attention. The case involved five women: 16-year-old Marie Claire, who had to abort after being raped by a boy from her school; Marie Claire’s mother, who helped her; two colleagues of hers who helped them find a woman practicing abortion; and the provider herself. After three attempts with a catheter during this unsafe abortion, Marie Claire was bleeding. Her mother, who did not have much money and was raising Marie Claire and her two sisters on her own, took Marie Claire to the hospital and paid with bad checks. They were denounced by the rapist in exchange for indulgence of the police that questioned him for a car theft. The five women were defended by Gisèle Halimi, a lawyer and feminist activist.

Gisèle Halimi and Simone de Beauvoir, who chaired the feminist association “Choose,” decided (in agreement with the accused) to lead a political trial of abortion. Instead of asking for forgiveness, the defense attacked the injustice of the 1920 law. This archaic law led the wealthy to go to Switzerland or Great Britain for an abortion, and the poor to have illegal abortions in France, often in deplorable conditions. The first time Marie Claire’s mother stood before the judge, she protested: “But, sir, I’m not guilty! Your law is guilty!” Finally, Marie Claire was discharged but her “accomplices” were given a suspended sentence. This judgment recognized that the 1920 law was not relevant, and the trial itself was integral in legitimizing the idea of legal abortion.

Halimi and de Beauvoir had been active in France’s reproductive rights movement before the Bobigny case. In 1971, Le Nouvel Observateur published the  Manifesto of the 343, a declaration signed by 343 women—including Halimi and de Beauvoir—admitting to having had an abortion, thereby exposing themselves to criminal prosecution. “Choose” was formed to protect these women. In 1973, 331 doctors signed a manifesto in which they stated, “We want freedom of abortion. It is entirely the woman’s decision. We reject any entity that forces her to defend herself, perpetuates an atmosphere of guilt, and allows underground abortions to persist.”

The evolution of the Veil Law

“They are the ones that we encounter every day and whose we do not know most of the time the distress and dramas. It is this disorder that must end. It is this injustice that should be stopped,” said Simone Veil in a parliamentary speech defending what would become the Veil Law. Veil was a lawyer and a politician who served as Minister of Health from 1975 to 1979, and helped legalize both the contraception pill (1967’s Neuwirth Act) and abortion. Since then, abortion in France is safe, legal, and available on demand up through the first trimester of pregnancy.

In October 2012, France’s lower house voted to fully reimburse all abortions and to make contraception free for minors; previously, women had been reimbursed for up to 80% of the procedure’s cost. But this fundamental right is still threatened by anti-choice groups—both religious groups, especially Catholics, but also political groups, such as the conservative party led by Marine Le Pen. The Catholics are active in front of public hospitals, and thus the symbol of the French state secularism. And since the early 2000s, more than a hundred medical centers that specialized in abortion closed in France, mainly because of the public deficit.

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