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French senators backtrack on changes to relax abortion law

Thomas Samson, AFP | Protesters wave placards at a march on International Safe Abortion Day on September 28, 2017, in Paris.

The French Senate has backtracked on proposed changes to the country’s abortion law, just as the United States passes ever-stricter measures to discourage women from seeking abortion.

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On June 7, the French Senate adopted a bill increasing the legal delay in which it’s possible for women to obtain an abortion, from 12 weeks to 14 weeks. Only 22 senators turned up to the vote. But just a few days later, the legislative body flip-flopped on its decision in a second hearing of the bill.

“The Senate isn’t exactly a progressive chamber, so we’re not very surprised, but we are very disappointed,” said Véronique Séhier, the co-president of France’s Family Planning organisation, in an interview with FRANCE 24. The organisation is pro-choice, and dispenses advice about safe abortions and sexual and reproductive health.

Family Planning has been pushing for years to lengthen the legal period for obtaining an abortion. “Even if we know that the majority of abortions occur before 10 weeks,” explained Séhier, “thousands of women still have problems accessing abortion.”

This is in part due to the dwindling number of medical centres in the country offering abortion, meaning that some women don’t have any abortion providers that are accessible or conveniently located. More than 130 health centres practising abortions closed between 2001 and 2011.

There are a number of reasons that women could seek a late-term abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy: screening for the likes of Down syndrome can only take place when a person is around 11 to 14 weeks' pregnant; geographical inconvenience; only finding out late that they are pregnant; becoming pregnant within a context of domestic violence; or even having certain doctors refuse to provide an abortion, citing the ‘conscience clause’.

Each year in France between 3,000 and 5,000 women travel abroad, usually to Spain or the Netherlands, to seek abortions because the 12-week time limit is up. In both of these countries women can obtain abortions up to 22 or 24 weeks of pregnancy, respectively. Those who don’t have the financial means to go abroad are faced with an unwanted pregnancy.

'The government is just extending legislative delays'

The French Socialist party senator Laurence Roussignol presented the amendment on June 7. She told FRANCE 24 that it “had been adopted by a majority of those present [and] was justified because it aimed to tackle ‘medical deserts’ and the widespread shuttering of maternity wards”. The amendment mentioned that “there is no scientific consensus on a necessary time period” within which to access a safe abortion and that the change “represents an improvement in the sexual and reproductive rights of women”.

But the amendment was voted down by 205 votes to 102 when it next came to the chamber on June 11. France’s conservative party, The Republicans, had called for a second vote, saying that there had been too many senators absent from the first.

The health minister Agnès Buzyn said that the bill had to be removed and would be postponed to September.

“The government is just extending legislative delays,” said Roussignol in response to the government’s decision. “The amendment would have been in force within 15 days.”

Roussignol also accused French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, the Republic on the Move, of deliberately siding with the more conservative side of the chamber to prop up an uneasy alliance.

The French Senate’s backpedaling comes only weeks after the state of Alabama in the US banned virtually all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, sparking protests. Other American states followed suit, with Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi enacting bills barring abortion after only the sixth week of pregnancy.

This article was originally written in French by Jean-Luc Mounier and has been adapted by Catherine Bennett.

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