The Observer

The Fight for Reproductive Rights in France and the United States

At first blush, it may seem that France is moving further forward on reproductive rights, while the United States, where more and more states are restricting access to abortion, is sliding steadily backwards.
© Antoine Maillard

The contrast could hardly be more striking. In April this year, France extended access to medication abortions from five to nine weeks of pregnancy to ensure that women could maintain their rights during the coronavirus epidemic. Conversely, Texas passed a law in May that outlawed most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy; and several other states subsequently announced their intention of introducing tighter restrictions. Two advanced democracies, two sharply different mentalities.

At first blush, it may seem that one country is moving further forward on reproductive rights, while the other is sliding steadily backwards. One thing is certain: While the Texas decision has received extensive coverage in the French media, the reverse is not true. The new legislation, which came into force in September after the Supreme Court of the United States declined to rule on an emergency request, makes Texas the first state to ban abortion at such an early stage. From a French perspective, the so-called Heartbeat Act is perplexing in several ways. Most striking of all is that the law will not be enforced by the Texas state government but by private citizens, who can sue abortion providers and anyone helping a woman to use their services. Plaintiffs could be awarded upwards of 10,000 dollars. That ordinary people can become bounty hunters – the term used by one of the dissenting SCOTUS justices – is astounding. Equally surprising is that the law allows for no exceptions in the event of rape or incest (although the Texan governor did promise boldly to “eliminate rape” in his state).

The Texas legislature’s move is seen by many as yet another step towards overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision confirming that Americans have a constitutional right to safe and legal abortion. At a more fundamental level, however, attitudes towards sexual health and reproductive rights in the U.S. have been hardening for several years. Still in Texas, access to contraception is limited in many parts of the state: Recent data from Power to Decide, an NGO, show that at least 1.7 million women with low incomes live in counties with no reasonable access to a health center offering the full range of birth-control methods. At the national level, the number living in these “contraceptive deserts” is estimated at more than 19 million. The recent political climate has done little to remedy the situation. On the contrary, organizations providing information on and assistance with birth-control have been defunded or made subject to a “gag rule” which, among other things, prohibits doctors from providing women with full information about their sexual and reproductive health rights.

© Antoine Maillard

Compare this with what is happening in France, where the government recently announced that women up to the age of 25 would be entitled to free contraception, as well as doctors’ appointments, tests, and other related medical procedures, as from next year. Birth-control has been free in France for those aged between 15 and 18 since 2013, and for the under-15s since August 2020. For women in other age groups, 65% of the cost of most contraceptives is covered by the public health system. Abortion, legalized in 1975, is permitted up to 12 weeks after conception (and beyond, in the case of medical emergency). The formalities are also streamlined. Women seeking a procedure – known as une interruption volontaire de grossesse, or voluntary termination of pregnancy – have to consult twice with a medical practitioner beforehand and respect a one-week reflection period, except in urgent cases. Medication abortion is also available, though on a shorter timeframe. The costs of both procedures are covered by the health system. More broadly, France’s official policy on reproductive health, as framed by the health ministry, is predicated on people’s ability to have “responsible, satisfying, and safe sex and their freedom to choose to have children if and when they wish.” That policy includes contraception, voluntary termination, and prevention of infertility outside of assisted reproductive technology.

On the face of it, then, the two countries are as different as can be when it comes to public health and sexual wellbeing, particularly as regards pregnancy termination. And yet… Attitudes in France have evolved considerably since abortion was legalized. Recent surveys appear to show that opinions are now divided almost equally on whether the 220,000 procedures conducted each year constitute a “normal situation.” The tolerant outlook that prevailed over the past two decades has been increasingly questioned in conservative circles. And a new generation of youngsters are becoming ever more vocal in their opposition to the existing legislation. Pro-life movements such as Les Survivants (“the survivors”) are harnessing social media to appeal to millennials and Gen-Zers, using slick videos and shock imagery. The feminist slogan Mon corps, mon choix (My body, my choice) has been repurposed as C’est mon corps, pas ton choix (It’s my body, not your choice) by demonstrators on anti-abortion marches. And other activists are demanding that embryos be given the same legal status as born human beings.

There is little chance of a direct challenge to current French law in the immediate future, as may happen in the U.S., where a pending case like Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Mississippi could upend Roe v. Wade. Even so, the trends in both countries are similar, albeit to differing degrees. More than a hundred birth-control centers have closed across France in the past ten years; a growing number of physicians are refusing to perform abortions; and well-organized online disinformation campaigns (“You’ll become sterile,” “Your husband will leave you”) are multiplying. Astonishingly, the (male) president of the French OB-GYN union has openly described termination as “murder.” A spokesperson for the women’s rights organization Osez le féminisme ! called that statement “shocking” and “a really bad signal” that women can no longer rely on gynecologists or their representatives to defend the right of access to abortion. Other pro-choice groups are sounding loud alarm bells and calling on their members and the public at large to be vigilant. They recall the words of the influential feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir: “Never forget that a political, economic, or religious crisis will be enough to jeopardize women’s rights. These rights are never to be taken for granted. You will have to stay vigilant your whole life.”

Article published in the November 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.