Abortion Enshrined in the French Constitution: What’s Next?

Intended as a ‘symbolic message’ to the rest of the world, on the other side of the Alps, pro-life organizations are already calling for mobilization to prevent the export of the French model.

Protestors with cloths covering their mouths, hold candles and a slogan which reads " Free to defend life" during a silent pro-life demonstration in Paris, on February 28, 2024 as the Senate started debates for inclusion of abortion in the constitution.
Protestors with cloths covering their mouths, hold candles and a slogan which reads " Free to defend life" during a silent pro-life demonstration in Paris, on February 28, 2024 as the Senate started debates for inclusion of abortion in the constitution. (photo: Kiran Ridley / Getty)

The practice of abortion is now a constitutional right in France, which officially becomes the second country in history to take this step, a few decades after Tito’s communist Yugoslavia in the 1970s. 

In taking this action to embrace abortion rights democratically, France also stepped beyond the situation that prevailed nationally in the U.S. prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022, given that this American constitutionalizing of abortion rights occurred judicially. 

So what does this unprecedented change signify, both in France and internationally?

After several months of parliamentary debate, French deputies and senators gathered in Congress in Versailles, voting March 4 by an overwhelming majority (780-72) for the constitutional amendment making abortion a “guaranteed freedom.” The amendment had already been approved  by both the National Assembly and the French Senate earlier this year.

Meanwhile, on the Esplanade du Trocadéro in Paris, scenes of jubilation unfolded, with purple smoke bombs flying to the rhythm of Beyoncé’s pop hit Run the World (Girls), against a backdrop of the glittering Eiffel Tower displaying the message “My Body, My Choice.” 

Such images, out of keeping with the seriousness of the subject, coupled with the pomp and theatricality of the Versailles Congress, provoked dismay among a number of observers and internet users — including even some supporters of abortion — who denounced the indecency of many political supporters of this bill.

“Our country would have honored itself by instead inscribing [in the Constitution] the promotion of women’s and children’s rights,” wrote the French Bishops’ Conference in a statement issued on the day of the vote. They pointed out that “of all European countries, even in Western Europe, France is the only one where the number of abortions is not falling and has, in fact, risen over the last two years.”

These observations are corroborated by France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies, which has tracked a record figure of 232,000 abortions in 2022, a sharp rise on previous years, with a ratio of 1 abortion for every 3 births in 2022, compared with 1 for every 4 in 2017.


A ‘Communication Stunt’

Indeed, if President Emmanuel Macron initiated this project to amend the Constitution, it was less to protect a “threatened right” in France than to make pledges to his left-wing voters in a tense social context and send a message to the rest of the world, starting with the United States, whose overturning of Roe v. Wade sent shockwaves through the Western world in June 2022. This is directly indicated by the bill’s explanatory memorandum, which claims that the right to abortion is under threat in other countries such as the U.S., Poland and Hungary. 

For the bill’s opponents, this French initiative is nothing more than a “publicity stunt,” the consequences of which are difficult to gauge. 

“It is totally absurd,” said constitutional lawyer Anne-Marie Le Pourhiet in an interview with Le Figaro during the January parliamentary debates. “The Constitution is being used to symbolically inscribe a categorical claim based on tyrannical societal demands, turning it into a normative self-service where every category, every pressure group comes to demand that its personal right be inscribed.”

Nevertheless, the French president’s strategy paid off, with a large section of major international press outlets paying tribute to him in the aftermath, from El País in Spain to Corriere Della Sera in Italy, The Guardian in the U.K., Die Welt in Germany and Clarín in Argentina. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, also praised France’s initiative. 

Macron, evoking “French pride” and a “universal message,” took advantage of the media enthusiasm generated by the vote to announce that a formal ceremony inscribing it into the Constitution would be held open to the public for the first time on March 8, International Women’s Day, at Place Vendôme in Paris.


Gradual Shift

According to Bishop Matthieu Rougé of Nanterre in suburban Paris, France’s constitutional amendment is a witness to an international inversion of values whereby abortion is now erected as a “fundamental right par excellence.” 

In an interview with the Catholic radio channel KTO, the former parliamentary chaplain lamented the “global media logic” that tends to stereotype all opposition to this practice, and which has not spared members of French Parliament, as “prisoners of the spirit of the times.” He referred to “external pressures” on elected representatives and a “global atmosphere that has dissuaded them from doing what they believed in themselves.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by ECLJ, a Strasbourg-based pro-life human-rights NGO, which worked behind the scenes during the parliamentary debates to make elected representatives aware of the trauma that abortion causes for so many women. Meeting with more than a dozen MPs from different parties, Nicolas Bauer, a lawyer and research fellow at ECLJ, presented them with the poignant testimonies of 12 women, many of whom had had abortions under duress or due to a lack of information on the nature and consequences of the procedure.

He saw several politicians moved to tears by these testimonies, he said in an interview with the Register, without however opposing the majority of elected representatives in the March 4 vote. “French conservatives always end up voting in favor of laws described as ‘societal breakthroughs,’ out of cowardice or defeatism, thinking that the project will go through with or without them,” he said. “I even met parliamentarians last week who are personally against abortion but voted to add it to the Constitution.”

When abortion was first decriminalized in France in 1975, the bill’s instigator, Simone Veil, famously proclaimed in a speech that “abortion should remain the exception, the last resort for situations with no way out,” adding that “it goes without saying that no doctor will ever be required to take part.”

The bill, which met with virulent opposition at the time, was narrowly passed. Initially set at 10 weeks in 1975, the legal time limit for abortion was extended to 12 weeks in 2001 and then to 14 weeks in 2022.

For defenders of the right to life, the discrepancy between the tone of Veil’s speech and the festivities immortalized at Versailles and Paris this week seem to illustrate better than words the risk represented by each ethical threshold that a law subsequently breaks. 

In a video calling on elected representatives ahead of their final vote on March 4, geneticist Alexandra Henrion Caude expressed concern at the absence of a legal time limit for abortion in the constitutional bill, which specifies that “the law determines the conditions under which the freedom guaranteed to women to resort to abortion is exercised.”

“At the moment, the deadline is set at 14 weeks, whereas this ‘clump of cells,’ as some call it, already has a face, a heart and has thumb-sucking autonomy. But since the law will determine the conditions of this constitutionally guaranteed freedom, it will be possible to extend this deadline again and again. There will be no brakes left,” she warned.


Risks for Freedom of Conscience 

It was the issue of the absence of a conscience clause for medical personnel who object to participation in abortion that most concerned many opponents of the constitutionalization of abortion. 

Archbishop Emeritus Michel Aupetit of Paris described France as a “totalitarian state” that had “hit rock bottom” in a tweet following the rejection of a Senate amendment to incorporate the conscience clause into the constitutional amendment

While the government had repeatedly assured that constitutionalization of abortion would not threaten freedom of conscience, a few hours before the vote on March 4, some members of French Parliament called for the abolition of the existing double conscience clause for doctors. (The 1975 Veil law introduced a specific right not to perform abortions, in addition to the general conscience clause for doctors, which already allowed them to refuse to perform a medical act for professional or personal reasons.) In its 2023-25 strategic plan, the French section of the organization Family Planning has already pledged to campaign for the abolition of this double conscience clause, as well as a further extension of the legal time limit for abortion.

“The conscience clause has legal value. By inserting a right to abortion into the Constitution, abortion de facto acquires a higher, constitutional value,” Bauer told the Register. “The Constitutional Council could well consider that the doctors’ conscience clause calls into question the constitutional freedom of abortion.” The Constitutional Council is an institution responsible for ensuring that laws comply with the Constitution and the rights and freedoms enshrined therein.

Added Bauer, “Subsequently, the Constitutional Council could further restrict other freedoms that would come into conflict with abortion, notably freedom of expression, already so abused by the offense of obstructing abortion.


A Way Forward for Other Countries 

Another question already raised by many commentators around the world is the global impact of this legislative action by France, which still retains considerable cultural influence, especially among its European neighbors.

Indeed, buoyed by the success of the vote at the Versailles congress and the chorus of international praise, one of the main promoters of the proposed constitutional amendment, left-wing MP Mathilde Panot, announced on March 4 that she would be filing a new resolution to have the right to abortion enshrined in the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. The text calls on the French government to “mobilize diplomatically with EU member states and the European Commission to ensure that the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union guarantees the right to abortion.”

A similar resolution had already been adopted by the European Parliament in 2022 following the U.S.’ Dobbs decision, but without binding force, as the European Union has no competence to define health policy, which remains a matter for member states.

On the other side of the Alps, pro-life organizations are already calling for mobilization to prevent the export of the French model.

“This is a tragic regress of civilization and not progress,” wrote the Italian NGO Pro-Vita e Famiglia (“Pro-Life and Family”) in a press release issued in the evening of March 4. “We appeal to all Italian pro-life people: Let’s prevent Italy from ending up like France by joining forces in a great civil redemption that defends the humanity of the conceived.”


A Wake-Up Call? 

The radicalization of pro-abortion movements in France seems to have had the unexpected effect of galvanizing opposition forces, who gathered in the streets of Versailles at the time of the congressional vote, and whose leaders are considering more effective and innovative strategies for defending life.

In an editorial published in the wake of the March 4 vote, Famille Chrétienne magazine calls for inspiration to be drawn from the concrete actions of American pro-lifers, who have “built birth centers alongside Planned Parenthood clinics [and] imagined mobile teams to go out and meet isolated families and help them discover, through a simple ultrasound scan, the reality of the ‘little piece of man’ that is coming into being.”

The French bishops, who are often criticized for their lack of boldness and their gradual withdrawal from public debates, have this time been much more vocal in denouncing the attacks on human dignity in the country, including the continuing debates on euthanasia that will resume over the coming months.

And while young priests were ringing the death knell of their churches in protest in several French towns, starting with Versailles, prayer initiatives including the “Va, Vis, Prie” website — whose aim is to have at least as many Rosaries of reparation prayed as there are abortions each year, in 50 different cities — are forging the country’s spiritual weapons. 

The years to come could well be those of a deeper collective change in spiritual, intellectual and political awareness, even more so as the country, like the rest of the Old Continent, is caught up in the harsh reality of demographic winter — with the number of births in 2023 at its lowest level since the end of the World War II. In this respect, the curious coincidence of Emmanuel Macron’s statement on the need to “re-arm” France demographically and the inclusion of abortion in the Constitution has not escaped observers.