Why Macron wants the right to abortion added to French constitution

The president announced the plan as part of an homage to the French lawyer instrumental in making abortion legal in France in 1975

A protester holding a placard reading: ‘My body, my choices’ in French
Polls show that the majority of people in France are pro-choice and in favour of making abortion part of the Constitution
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President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to make the right to an abortion part of the French constitution so it cannot be changed in the future.

He confirmed the plans on Sunday, October 29 on X (formerly Twitter) and said that a bill would be sent to the Conseil d’Etat, France’s supreme administrative court, this week, and submitted to the cabinet office by the end of the year. He first announced his intention to make this change on March 8.

In the recorded address, Mr Macron said: “Because women’s rights are still fragile...today, I want the strength of this message to help us change our Constitution, to engrave the freedom of women to turn to abortion. To solemnly ensure that nothing can obstruct or undo what will be irreversible.

“It also ensures a universal message of support to all women who are today seeing this right violated.”

What would the bill change?

Mr Macron has said that enshrining the right to an abortion - interruption volontaire de grossesse (IVG) in French - in the constitution would ensure the “freedom” of women to access the procedure.

One constitution specialist has said that the bill would be “symbolic”. Anne-Marie Le Pourhiet, a university specialist on constitutional law, told FranceInfo: “It will simply write the case law of the Conseil constitutionnel (the highest constitutional authority in France) word for word into the Constitution in black and white.”

The “case law of the Conseil constitutionnel” is referring to the vote that took place in the Senate on February 1, when Senator Philippe Bas presented a bill. The Senate voted by 166 votes to 152 in favour of enshrining the "freedom of women" to have an abortion under the Constitution.

The proposed addition to Article 34 stated: "The law shall determine the conditions under which a woman's freedom to terminate her pregnancy is exercised.”

However, partly because the Senate is largely right-wing, the word “right” (as in a legal right) was not present. This was disputed by the left but most hailed the vote as a success.

The Parti Socialiste called it a “major step forward for women's rights”.

Assemblée president of opposition party La France Insoumise, Mathilde Panot, hailed the victory on X, writing: "Historic. After the National Assembly, it is now the Senate that has voted to enshrine abortion in the Constitution”.

The current debate on the issue centres on the difference between a ‘freedom’ and a ‘right’.

  • Freedom: A personal choice, such as the freedom to come and go, or the freedom of the press.

  • Rights: Granted by the authorities, who must implement them and ensure that they are guaranteed for everyone, such as the right to education.

This means that writing ‘freedom’ in the constitution will not ensure an ‘absolute right’. With ‘freedom’, legislations still retain the power to define the conditions and limits.

However, a ‘freedom’ can still be asserted before a judge, making it legally binding. And yet, the ‘freedom’ to an abortion for one woman could clash with a healthcare worker’s ‘freedom of conscience’ (their right to refuse to grant an abortion due to their own beliefs), said Professor Guillaume Drago, from the l'Université Paris II Panthéon-Assas, to Le Figaro.

In such a case, the courts would then need to find a resolution, rather than the government.

Why has Mr Macron announced this now?

Homage to feminist lawyer

Mr Macron announced the plans as part of a national homage to Gisèle Halimi, a French feminist and lawyer who was instrumental in decriminalising abortion in the country, and who spent her career fighting for women’s rights.

Ms Halimi died in 2020 at the age of 92.

Mr Macron’s speech also referenced the ‘procès de Bobigny (the Bobigny trial)’, an infamous case from 1972 when a teenage girl, Marie-Claire Chevalier, underwent an at-home abortion after having been raped (before abortion was legal in France). Four women, including her mother, were condemned for their role in the incident.

The defence for the case was taken on by Ms Halimi, and it would go on to be a landmark case in the fight for abortion rights in France.

Political win

From a political (or perhaps more cynical) point of view, the move is being seen as a strategic win for the president, as it will enable him to avoid a referendum on the subject and unify his political allies, while also dividing the right-wing and far-right parties.

It will also allow him to lead on the bill rather than leave it - as was likely to happen - to Ms Panot, who had been planning to move the bill forwards in February. This could have made the president appear weaker and less of a leader in his own right, as his party would not have been able to oppose the move (as it has always been in favour of the bill).

By taking control of the bill, Mr Macron will now set in motion the process by which it will be ratified by parliament, likely next spring.

He is also seeking to unify the left-leaning parties, who have been opposed to other projects, such as the recent immigration bill. The project will also create discord among the far-right.

What has been the response from the far-right?

Marine Le Pen has said that she is personally in favour of enshrining abortion in the constitution, but one year ago, the proposal was dismissed by 23 Rassemblement National MPs, who voted against it.

More recently, she has dismissed Mr Macron’s plan as “totally useless”. She told France 3: “It will do nothing because no political movement - in the Assemblée nationale or elsewhere - is demanding that the law be reversed.”

France legalised abortion in 1975. Since then, more laws have aimed to improve conditions, including protecting women’s health, preserving their anonymity, and reducing the financial burden of the procedure.

The vast majority of people in France are pro-choice, as shown by a November 2022 survey that found that 89% would be in favour of enshrining the freedom to abortion in the constitution.

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