Monday, December 15, 2014

Last month, a French delegation went to Geneva with the European Women’s Lobby to push an abortion-related resolution at the upcoming Beijing+20 Summit. With this and other efforts France is developing a profile as a European leader on abortion rights.

France abortion protest
Women in Strasbourg, France, protest Spain’s attempts to reform its abortion law.
Credit: GUE/NGL on Flickr, under Creative Commons

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PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)–French women reap the benefits of one of the more progressive abortion laws in the European Union and now some activists, politicians and health practitioners here are pushing to have those benefits expand beyond their country’s borders.

“France thinks it’s important to continue to speak on this subject if we don’t want to go back,” said Sandrine Simon, an advisor in the sexual and reproductive health program at Medecins du Monde in Paris. “Europe as a region had previously a common voice at the United Nations regarding reproductive rights, access to abortion and access to contraception, but since Malta and Poland have entered the E.U. it’s not possible anymore to have this common voice.”

While most countries in the E.U. have progressive abortion laws, Malta and Poland, along with Ireland and Andorra, have some of the most restrictive laws in the continent.

Two notable French efforts–a manifesto and an E.U. campaign that includes a lobbying effort focused on a global development gathering–are trying to change that and renew a common continental voice in favor of expanded abortion access. These and allied causes in France have been energized by recent anti-choice efforts in Europe, particularly the near brush with a major restriction in neighboring Spain.

In September, after much national and international outcry, Spain abandoned its plan to pass a bill that would have made abortion available only in the cases of a health risk for the mother or a fetus malformation. Currently women in Spain can terminate unwanted pregnancies on demand within 14 weeks of pregnancy or up to 22 weeks in cases of severe abnormalities.

Manifesto of 420

Simon’s organization was part of one of the initiatives pushing for greater abortion access. In September, it, along with the Family Planning Association, a member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and the nongovernmental organization Equilibres et Populations, published a Manifesto of 420, an appeal for universal access to contraception and free and legal access to abortion worldwide. It’s been signed by 420 doctors and medical staff globally.

“We, doctors, as our 331 French colleagues in 1973, want contraception to be accessible for everyone everywhere in the world and we want freedom to choose abortion. The decision must belong entirely to women,” they write in the manifesto, referring to the doctors who signed a similar manifesto in the 1970s, before abortion was legal in France.

France’s 1975 law legalizing abortion has been eased over the past 40 years. As of last year, for example, abortion is reimbursed for all women in France, including for minors, and this year the law stopped requiring women to prove they are in “distress” to get an abortion. In France, a woman can have an abortion on demand during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After 12 weeks, with no time limit, two physicians must confirm that an abortion is needed to prevent a serious risk to the woman’s health or because there’s a risk the fetus will suffer from an incurable severe illness.

“People in France think the abortion situation is okay, as they’ve had a right to abortion for over 25 years,” said Simon in an interview in her organization’s office. “We wanted to make them aware that it’s a problem for others and of the consequences and the magnitude of the problem and to push the French government to take a strong position on it.”

One of the doctors who signed the manifesto is Ghadam Hatem, chief of the maternity ward at the Saint-Denis Hospital near Paris. Hatem said she signed the appeal because “we are losing awareness of the importance of the right” of abortion. Over 30 years ago, when she began her career in France, the law was still new. “There were a lot of activists, now they are old. My generation we still remember that fight,” she said during an interview in a cafe in Paris.

When the law was passed, she recalled, women who asked for an abortion were not always treated well and were called names. “There was no compassion, because it was something ugly . . .  and I think it is not fair. They deserve the same quality of care,” said Hatem, adding that about 100 abortions are now performed each month at her maternity unit.

Push for Universal E.U. Law

Another French activist pushing to decriminalize abortion outside of France is Annie Sugier, president of the International League for Women’s Rights. Sugier, who is also the vice president of the European Women’s Lobby Network in France, fought for abortion to be legalized in France in the 1970s.

Now she is part of a campaign, launched this year, to decriminalize abortion on the European level and eventually worldwide. She wants that right to be enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which was proclaimed in 2000 and implemented in 2009 with the European Treaty of Lisbon.

In the Charter, she said, “there is nothing about sexual and reproductive rights and nothing about abortion, while there are new rights appearing such as the protection of environment and the confidentiality of personal data.”

She criticizes the document for referring to health care in broad terms and allowing each state to define its own health policies. Article 35 of the Charter reads: “Everyone has the right of access to preventive health care and the right to benefit from medical treatment under the conditions established by national laws and practices.”

Last month, as part of the European decriminalization campaign, a French delegation went to Geneva with the European Women’s Lobby to make an abortion-rights resolution a higher priority at the upcoming Beijing+20 Summit meetings, which will take place in New York City next year in March. The European Women’s Lobby is also pushing several resolutions on the European level, including ones concerning prostitution, violence against women and LGBT rights, but the French lobby is focused only on abortion access.

Sugier wishes the European Women’s Lobby would just focus on the issue of decriminalizing abortion rather than giving decision makers a range of issues from which to choose. At the same time she recognizes Europe’s respect for the cultural differences among its countries, which has allowed variances on abortion laws.

“To change this is very difficult. This explanation is probably why they [European Women’s Lobby] . . .  haven’t focused all their energy on this issue,” she said during an interview in a cafe in Paris.

Low Odds for Law

Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, based in Brussels, sees little chance of a European law decriminalizing the right of abortion since there’s currently no legal mechanism for a universal law. “The only way to decriminalize abortion is to pass a national law or a revision of the constitution,” Datta told Women’s eNews in a phone interview.

And while he said there’s been an increase in anti-choice activity across the European continent, including in France, Datta doubts that even the most progressive countries would want the E.U. to decide their respective abortion policies.

This became clear in December 2013, when the European Parliament rejected a bill to give universal and safe access to abortion and contraception for all women across Europe. The text was introduced by a socialist lawmaker from Portugal, Edite Estrela.

Even though Sugier admitted the odds are low of the E.U. ever passing a law decriminalizing abortion she said the push is still symbolically important.

Sugier added that members of the French government have expressed a commitment to highlighting the importance of universal access to abortion and reproductive rights internationally. When the Manifesto of 420 was published, for example, Marisol Touraine, minister of social affairs, health and women’s rights, and Pascale Boistard, deputy minister for women’s rights, issued a press statement saying they shared the manifesto’s goals and that France will work actively to ensure that sexual and reproductive rights, including access to safe and legal abortion, are on the post-2015 development agenda.

The French Ministry of Health and Social Affairs did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

“France has a strong presence at the international level on this issue,” said Sugier. “We see in France medical doctors, politicians and nongovernmental organizations focused on this issue.” One of the potential explanations for this, she added, is perhaps because France is a secular country and so here, unlike some other countries, religion does not often interfere with women’s rights. “Religion is the enemy of women,” said Sugier.

Attempts over the past year to restrict abortion in Spain have only further motivated Sugier and other French pro-choice activists to push for European and global access to abortion.

“It was my priority in the ’70s and now what happened in Spain was a kind of warning to understand if we have no universal decision on this issue in many countries we can lose what we had,” she said.

This story was reported and produced by Juhie Bhatia, Women’s eNews’ managing editor, and Hajer Naili, Women’s eNews’ staff reporter for the series “Backlash in Europe: Women’s Reproductive Rights Threatened.” This special project was funded by a group of private donors and contributors to the Women’s eNews Catapult online campaign. Join the conversation on reproductive health issues in Spain and France on Twitter #EUReproRights.