Abortion In France Is About Health, Not Politics
Compared to in the U.S., abortion in France is not a contentious issue. In a recent segment of the radio show Worldview, host Jerome McDonnell interviews Jean Robinson, a professor of political science and expert on abortion policy in France at Indiana University to discuss abortion in France as a health issue, not a political issue.
Prior to 1975, abortion in France was a capital crime. After the passing of the Veil law in 1975, abortion became decriminalized but only in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy (first trimester). After the twelfth week limit, two physicians must certify that the patient’s life is endangered or the fetus will have severe birth defects for the abortion to be legal post-first trimester.
Also, France was the first country to legalize the morning after pill in 1988. Much more progress has been made in France over abortion and the U.S. could learn a thing or two about this hot-button topic. Robinson explains below the history of French politics and why abortion is not considered a political issue.
I’ve only transcribed part of the interview below (many apologies, there isn’t a full transcription available). Note that elipses (“…”) marks a gap in the transcription. Click here to listen to the full segment on the abortion debate in France.
Jean Robinson: For adolescent girls over the age of 16 do not need their parents permission [to get an abortion] but need a legal representative.
Jerome McDonnell: What does that mean?
JR: It means that it can be a family counselor, it can be a lawyer, it can be some other adult who is understood by the French state to be a legal representative but it doesn’t have to be an attorney. The reason why this particular part of the law was allowed was to enable teenage girls who found themselves pregnant to be able to get a legal abortion even in cases where their parents either didn’t approve or the teenage girl was afraid or unwilling to go to her parents. And I think it speaks to that general approach to abortion in France which, since 1975, abortion is a health care issue for women, not a moral issue, not a political issue, but rather, and this is where the consensus in France lies, abortion is a health policy. It is not a legal issue, it is not an issue that’s up for debate along political lines or religious lines.
JMcD: Well what did the debate sound like when they were making their laws in the 70s? Did it sound different what we [in the U.S.] would recognize as the abortion debate?
JR: Well, it did. It sounded different because the language that was used in discussing abortion was changed…But beginning in the 1970s, there was a public re-framing of abortion and what happened was the French word for abortion was taken out of use at least in public debates. Instead the term in English is translated as “voluntary interruption of pregnancy” was used. And that continued to be used in public debate in the legislature and in state discussions because it highlighted the health concerns rather than the negative sense of using the word abortion. It drew attention away from negative aspects of abortion and focused on the health related or reproductive related voluntary interruption of pregnancy.
JMcD: That’s an interesting phrase because in our country [the U.S.] we’re pro-life or pro-choice but we never use a phrase like that but that would be a phrase that’s really about, um, it sounds like a pro-choice winner.
JR: Well, it does but it was understood as desensitizing the issue and moving it over to the medical realm. This is in a context where in France health issues are everyone’s right. There is what many Americans would call socialized medicine, it’s not quite socialized medicine, but there is French government compensation or reimbursement for health care expenses. And it is understood that French citizens all have the right to health care. And by moving the abortion debate into a discussion about pregnancy and reproduction, it turns it into an issue that is going to be resolved by the Ministry in Health and paid for in part by the State.
In addition to that, they started using the term “fetus” and have not used the term “unborn child” which has become commonly used in the United States…
Similarly, when discussing the issue in the 1970s and thereafter, never was the phrasing of “Freedom of choice” used by moderates or by government officials. Instead, it was always framed as a woman’s right or indeed a citizen’s right to health care. And so again, it desensitizes the political aspect of abortion and turns the debate into a discussion about, What are the appropriate limits providing a certain kind of health care?
JMcD: I’m wondering why certain groups would put up with that framing of the debate. I mean, the Catholic Church is pretty prominent in France and there are other religious figures. Anda lot of religious figures, in this country [U.S.], come together on this issue and reject those terms.
JR: Well approximately 90% of the population in France identifies as Roman Catholic. There is a very very strong separation of church and state going back to the French Revolution. Some in France, both the Catholic Church and those on the conservative end of the political spectrum, may oppose abortion and indeed use a “right-to-life” rhetoric. But they don’t get much traction in the general public both because of this very strong pressure to have a secularized state. One in which religious values are separate and not attended to by Parliament or the legislation, but also one in which the debate is shaped and controlled by the central government in France rather than by interest groups or religious groups.
They certainly have a say and there’s a wide arena for public debate and discourse in France and most Americans are very familiar with rallies and protests and strikes which commonly affect American tourists when they go to France. So there’s a lot of public debate in France and all kinds of things are said there but policy and legislation is very much undertaken in the context of secular state in which policy is promoted by the central government and discussed by elective representatives. There is no Christian party in France, maybe adherence to religious values who are very active in conservative parties in France. Unlike Germany, Italy, and Spain which have Christian democratic parties, there is no such thing in France that is identified that way. And so the religious dimension is taken out of the picture in France.