Where France Differs on Abortion

The French and Americans once saw eye to eye on reproductive rights. Today, not so much.

A line illustration of a woman’s body with arrows suggesting divergent paths.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

When the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last week, a quote attributed to Simone de Beauvoir quickly circulated on French social media. “Never forget that all it takes is a political, economic or religious crisis for women’s rights to be called into question,” it said. “These rights are never fully acquired. You must remain vigilant your whole life.”

The French are feeling vigilant in part because, historically, they moved in near-lockstep with the U.S. on abortion and related reproductive rights. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling granting married couples access to birth-control medication; France authorized free access to the pill, for anyone, two years later. The U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on Roe in 1973; two years later, France decriminalized abortion by passing what became known as the loi Veil, after Simone Veil, the celebrated postwar politician who, as health minister, spearheaded the effort to enact the legislation.

But the two nations are now diverging. In March, with a possible reversal of Roe on the horizon in the U.S., France’s National Assembly, or parliament, expanded the loi Veil to allow abortions up to 14 weeks (measured from the estimated date of conception, which approximates in practice to 16 weeks after a woman’s last period). The lawmakers were acting also on a 2020 parliamentary report estimating that as many as 4,000 Frenchwomen travel abroad every year for abortions because their pregnancy had exceeded the then-legal limit of 12 weeks. And last Saturday, the day after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, legislators from President Emmanuel Macron’s party—backed by his prime minister—introduced a measure that would enshrine abortion rights in the French constitution.

They did so even though abortion no longer faces any significant political opposition in France. A left-wing coalition quickly proposed a similar constitutional change. On the center right, a party seen as representing traditionalist Catholics, Les Républicains, has shriveled in political significance. Even Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party, who made some noises against abortion in the past, now sees no advantage in doing so. When asked if she herself would support a constitutional amendment on abortion, Le Pen groused about how France isn’t the U.S. and no party envisions changing the abortion law, but conceded, “Pourquoi pas?” Why not?

How did the United States and France, which started out on roughly the same path, end up in such different places?

Bibia Pavard, a historian at the Université Panthéon-Assas, affirmed that early movements to legalize abortion were very similar in the two countries—and some French and American activists were even in touch with one another. She told me that both countries defined abortion’s stakes in very comparable ways—as “the liberation of women, the idea of women owning their bodies, but also as a public-health issue, backstreet abortions being very dangerous.”

The overriding difference is religion. France in the early 1970s was still quite a Catholic country, and from the outset, abortion had fierce opponents who, Pavard said, “put forth the idea that abortion was murder, that it went against nature and God, that it was evil.”

But by then in France, as in much of Europe, Christianity was in decline. The 1960s unleashed a social upheaval, in which religion came to be identified with the repressive old order. The French student revolution of 1968 took as one of its slogans “Il est interdit d’interdire” (“It’s forbidden to forbid”). Many younger people rejected religion, and politicians generally steered clear of it. And on abortion, even the Catholic Church in Europe has gradually become less strident.

Aside from the fact that the whole of France shuts down for Pentecost and then Assumption every summer, there is now little sign of religion left in public life. According to the Pew Research Center, just 11 percent of French people say religion is “very important” in their lives, one of the lowest levels in Europe. The few parents I know who baptize their children, or send them to Sunday school, tend to be extremely discreet about it.

That makes France a world away from the U.S., where, despite some recent declines, more than half (53 percent) of Americans say that religion is “very important” to them, according to Pew. Public displays of religiosity are common and even enjoy high status, including among politicians. Lots of Americans still seem to take a deep satisfaction in forbidding things on religious grounds.

Even among the faithful in France, and in Europe generally, nothing compares to evangelical Christians in America, who make up a quarter of the population. These Protestant churches have been a driving political and organizational force behind U.S. campaigns to restrict or ban abortion, and they have succeeded in shifting the focus of public debate from the rights and needs of women to those of the embryo or fetus. (Less than 2 percent of the French population is evangelical, and they do not make up any sort of political bloc.)

France has other particularities. Its abortion-rights effort got some lift from the Manifesto of the 343, a 1971 open letter written by de Beauvoir and signed by hundreds of well-known writers, actors, filmmakers, and designers, including Catherine Deneuve, Marguerite Duras, Agnès Varda, and Sonia Rykiel. The signatories all attested to having had an abortion, and they argued that the procedure was “the most basic necessity, without which the political fight cannot even begin.”

Public opinion in France was then moving toward legalizing abortion. Simone Veil cut a striking figure in her 1974 televised speech, when she made the case for doing so before a practically all-male National Assembly, and her advocacy carried a powerful moral imprimatur. A Holocaust survivor who’d been deported to Auschwitz as a teenager, Veil would go on to become the first female head of the European Parliament.

The initial loi Veil allowed abortions only in the first trimester, and then only for women judged to be “in distress”—though, in practice, this gave sympathetic doctors plenty of discretion. The caution embedded in the loi Veil—which involved evaluation and renewal after five years—probably helped give the public a chance to acclimate to the new rules.

“It started out very restrictive,” Pavard said, but it also allowed for gradualist reform. “We had feminists in government, especially in certain posts like the minister of women’s rights, who deepened the law in different steps.” The latest expansion permits midwives, who could already handle most medical abortions, to perform surgical abortions in hospitals too. (France also allows abortions at any time during a pregnancy if the mother’s life is in grave danger, or if the fetus suffers from a very serious birth defect or fatal illness.)

And whereas Roe v. Wade merely removed legal barriers to abortion by conferring a constitutional right, in France a whole medical and financial infrastructure emerged, aimed at making abortions accessible and affordable nationwide. Today, France’s national insurance plan covers the full cost of either a surgical or a medical abortion. (The number of abortions by medication alone has been increasing in France; these now represent about 69 percent of all such procedures.)

The French system is far from perfect. The National Assembly’s 2020 report found that not enough doctors perform abortions, and that many in the generation energized by the loi Veil are retiring. “Abortion appears to often be simply ‘tolerated’ in France, but it’s not always guaranteed,” the authors concluded. But France is moving in the right direction, in ways that seem eminently practical to an American resident there, which I was for many years. When the government discovered that some young women were not using contraception because it was too expensive, the state made birth control completely free for women under 26. Minors who want a day-after pill need simply walk into a pharmacy and ask for one. Shortly after I gave birth in France, a maternity nurse asked what kind of contraception I planned to use, then handed me a prescription.

Perhaps because the French state, like most other European governments, plays a strong role in raising children—providing benefits such as parental leave, subsidized day care, free universal preschool and health care—it is pragmatic about the consequences of unwanted babies. (In the U.S., although many in the anti-abortion movement talk a lot about providing help and advice to new mothers, many are also against any expansion of government, even if that might include services for parents and small children.)

In the decades since the early ’70s, support for abortion has consolidated in France—much more than it has in the U.S. Some 60 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases; in a French survey last year, 93 percent of respondents said they were “attached” to the right to an abortion, and 81 percent said this right needed to be strengthened even more.

When Simone Veil died, in 2018, President Macron presided over her state funeral, and she was buried in the Panthéon, an honor France reserves for its most revered figures. Paris soon renamed a Métro station for her, and the post office put her likeness on a stamp.

Last week, Macron tweeted his concern at Roe being struck down. “Abortion is a fundamental right for all women. It must be protected,” he wrote. “I wish to express my solidarity with the women whose liberties are being undermined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Even from across the ocean, America’s decision cast a chill on the French. I suspect they’ll stay vigilant for a very long time.