France Moves to Put Abortion Rights in Constitution as U.S. Curbs Access

Months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, France is moving toward enshrining abortion rights in its constitution.

French President Emmanuel Macron said this would send “a universal message of solidarity to all women who today see this right violated.”

“I hope the strength of this message today helps us change our constitution to enshrine the freedom of women to have recourse to abortion . . . to ensure that nothing can hinder nor unravel what will be irreversible,” he said Wednesday.

The decision to overturn Roe has mobilized abortion rights advocates in countries around the world, including proponents of protecting abortion access through the constitution in France.

Abortion access in the United States remains dependent on state-by-state policies since the June decision, which struck down a precedent that guaranteed the right to an abortion for nearly 50 years. Access is now severely curbed across several states, and more restrictions are expected.

In France, Macron said he hoped a bill on the constitutional revision would be submitted to Parliament “in the coming months.”

The president made the announcement on International Women’s Day at an event honoring Tunisian-born French lawyer Gisele Halimi, a defender of abortion rights who was central to its legalization in France and died in 2020 at 93.

The constitutional amendment’s final adoption is likely still months away. Both houses of the French Parliament have in recent months voted in favor of enshrining protections in the constitution, despite differing on the terminology between calling it a “freedom” or a “right” to abortion. And if Macron’s proposal fails, French voters may have to decide in a nationwide referendum.

Some Republicans have meanwhile cheered the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe for what they saw as returning authority on determining abortion access to individual states. In some states, Democrats and abortion rights advocates have since pushed for ballot measures to enshrine access to the procedure into state constitutions.

“The difference between the two countries is very striking,” said Bibia Pavard, a French historian.

There is no serious legal threat to a law that made abortion legal in France in 1975, two years after Roe.

The country’s legalization of abortion was also spurred by a legal case around the time: the trial of a 16-year-old student who obtained an aborted after being raped by a classmate. Halimi’s defense led to the girl’s acquittal in a groundbreaking ruling.

The recent urgency in France to enshrine abortion as a constitutional right was linked to the developments in the United States, according to Pavard. “What happened in the U.S. was definitely a shock to people in France. I believe it was really a turning point,” Pavard said.

When Roe was overturned, a quote attributed to Simone de Beauvoir was widely shared on social media, in which the late French feminist writer warned that “all it takes is a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question.”

In some parts of the 27-member European Union, abortion remains a contentious issue. But even without a constitutional change, abortion rights in France are today more entrenched than they have been in the United States in recent years, Pavard said.

There is also broader public and political support for abortion in France. Even far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who unsuccessfully ran against Macron in last year’s presidential elections, has said she would back abortion access being enshrined in the constitution.

In France and other European countries, opposition to abortion has historically been driven by the Catholic Church and its political allies. The church’s waning influence in Europe in recent decades gave activists more opportunity to push for change.

Other countries have also made it easier to secure the procedure legally, including Mexico and Ireland – where voters swept aside one of the West’s most restrictive abortion bans in 2018.

French activists “have won the cultural battle” over abortion for now, Pavard said.

Some criticized Macron’s abortion announcement on Wednesday as his pension reform plans face opposition, including from feminists who say women will be hit particularly hard.

The plan to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 has triggered mass protests and strikes disrupting transport across France.

As Macron honored Halimi this week, one of her sons, Serge Halimi, refused to attend, saying that “women who have the toughest jobs will be the first victims” of the retirement plans. “My mother would have defended their cause and demonstrated at their side,” he said.

Another one of her sons, Jean-Yves Halimi, did not share the sentiment and spoke at the ceremony paying homage her.