Coronavirus: In France, professionals look to extend legal abortion time limit

A counsellor for the French family planning movement in Rennes, France.
A counsellor for the French family planning movement in Rennes, France. © AFP Archive

In the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, concerned professionals are asking the government to extend the 12-week time limit to have an abortion by two weeks amid worries that women with unwanted pregnancies are afraid to leave their homes given the current health crisis.


Since the lockdown was imposed in France on March 17, the hotline of the organisation Family Planning – responsible for answering questions on sexuality, contraception and abortion – has been inundated.

"On the other end of the line, the majority of women have just taken pregnancy tests and found out they are pregnant," Sarah Durocher, national co-president of Family Planning, told FRANCE 24. "They're worried. They're wondering whether they can have an abortion during the period of confinement." 

The government, for its part, has taken emergency measures. It said on March 23 that it had classified abortions as "urgent interventions" to ensure that they would continue to be performed.

But there have been numerous calls to Family Planning, evidence that that information hasn't been clear during the past two weeks.

"Some women think they don't have access to abortion – wrongly!" Durocher said. "Abortions are not suspended during quarantine. The professionals continue their work. If a woman is pregnant and the pregnancy is unwanted, she can go to a doctor's office, to a midwife or to a health centre that performs abortions."

If women are calling more, they are moving less. They're coming in for fewer abortions than they were before the lockdown, abortion practitioners have observed.

"Young women are afraid to go out and our consultations are decreasing," Ghada Hatem, an ob-gyn and the founder of the Saint-Denis Women's Centre, told France Inter.

Medical abortions preferred

On the ground, areas dedicated to vacuum aspiration abortions, which require local or general anaesthesia, have been requisitioned for the resuscitation of patients with COVID-19, according to Family Planning.

Despite that Durocher wants to reassure women: "We are ensuring continuity. That doesn't mean that women can't have abortions, but they do have abortions in a different way."

In France, women usually have the choice between several methods of abortion: by medication or by aspiration.

"In the context of COVID-19, the choice of method is restricted and medical abortions are preferred," said Durocher.

Tele-consultation, consolidation of examinations and abortion in a single medical visit... Solutions are being studied by all abortion professionals to meet the demand in the shortest possible time while limiting patient travel.

For their part, activists from Family Planning have identified every abortion centre still open and every available hospital service. They refer women who call in to local resources, depending on their situation.

"If some centres are closed to the public, there are offices that provide telephone assistance and information on social networks," said Durocher.

Family Planning, in fact, has a freephone number of 0800 081111 and it's open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 8pm.

Concern for minors and victims of violence

During the lockdown, the primary concern of these organisations is isolated women, minors and victims of violence, who have difficulty accessing abortion services at the best of times. They fear that some of these women may find themselves outside the legal time limit to have an abortion and so the organisations are looking into ways to reach them.

"It is impossible for them to call in front of the people they are in lockdown with and they have to wait until they go outside to be able to call us, which significantly increases stress," Durocher noted, citing some of the women who have called the freephone number. "It is impossible to maintain confidentiality, and medical abortion is often not feasible in their parents' home, if the parents are not supposed to know about it.

"The lack of money to take a pregnancy test and the fact that there are no open facilities nearby" are also among the obstacles to abortion as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, added Durocher.

Practitioners ready to defy the law

Faced with the urgency of the situation, more than a hundred abortion professionals published an opinion article in the newspaper Le Monde on March 31. They called on the government to extend the recommended time limit for home medical abortions from seven to nine weeks of pregnancy. "This option is endorsed by the WHO and does not present any particular danger," they wrote.

As for vacuum abortion, practitioners would like to be able "exceptionally, during the period of confinement, to perform vacuum aspiration up to the 14th week of pregnancy (a two week extension of the 12th-week maximum allowed by law)," Durocher said. "These difficulties will force many women to keep their pregnancies against their will, threatening their autonomy and the future of children born under these conditions."

As the signatories of the Le Monde article stated, in these circumstances they will not hesitate, if necessary, to "outlaw" themselves. Among them, Saint-Denis Women's Centre's Hatem warned that if these concerns are not addressed, she will "probably, maybe" perform abortions outside of the time limit.

This article was translated from the original in French.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app