‘Abortion rights are a matter of political will’

Q+A: What France’s historic legislation on abortion could mean for the country and the wider EU.
Large crowds gathered at the Eiffel Tower during the Live Broadcast of the parliamentary vote to enshrine the right to abortion in the Constitution

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

08 Mar 2024

France’s landmark decision this week to enshrine the right to abortion in the country’s constitution has made waves throughout Europe and the world. The timing could not have been better, with the announcement coming just ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March.  

To unpack the news, we spoke with reproductive rights expert Alexia Fafara from the Brussels-based European Women’s Lobby about the significance of France’s unprecedented move, as well as the state of abortion rights more broadly in the European Union.   

France’s decision has been widely described as historic –not only for France but for the world. Do you agree?   

Yes. It is a powerful message of hope for all women in Europe and around the world, showing that a world where women can make their own choices for their bodies is possible. And of course, we must congratulate the organisations and activists who have been working very hard to make this achievement possible. We hope that France will be followed by many more countries. And, at the same time, we call for the inclusion of the right to abortion in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.   

In what way are abortion rights a policy topic at the European level?   

They are a matter of national competence, which means they depend on the political will of the individual member states. But in June 2021, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on sexual and reproductive health and rights in which MEPs urged member states to decriminalise abortion and to remove obstacles to legal abortion. The EP also published a recommendation to the European Commission to recognise reproductive coercion and denial of safe and legal abortion care as a form of gender-based violence. In the parliament, the topic is regularly discussed, which is a very good thing, especially in comparison to the Council of the European Union. The latter avoids the topic as there is no consensus between member states.   

French lawmakers voted to make abortion a constitutional right by an overwhelming 780 in favor, compared with 72 against. What does the decision mean for French women? And how might the situation on the ground change?  

It’s a way to acknowledge that abortion rights should not be jeopardised and that there is a need to protect them, as they are still being attacked. Just yesterday, as a reaction, a family- planning centre in Strasbourg was covered with ‘murderer’ tags. Especially the far right likes to say that we don’t need to put it into the constitution, as it’s not something that is being questioned. But that is not true.   

Besides that, there is the hope that there will be an increase in financial means to hospitals, etc., to make sure abortions can be carried out in time, that there are enough practitioners available, and women don’t have to travel too far to have access. It will ensure that the right to abortion is properly [and] practically implemented.  

Looking at the situation in Europe, where is access to abortion accessible and where is it still harder to obtain services, or outright restricted? 

According to a study that was published last year, the situation is especially good in Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden, where legislation enables access to abortion on demand, where it is facilitated, and there are not many constraints. In these countries, abortion is possible on simple request. Countries where abortion is not easily accessible are Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. And then in Malta and Poland, abortion is de facto impossible. I insist on the fact that to date, abortion rights are really a matter of political will. The situations in Poland and France clearly prove this.   

Are things in Poland on the cusp of improving now that there is a new, more moderate government in place led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk?   

This week, something very interesting happened there. The abortion law was supposed to be discussed in the Polish parliament, as this was one of the priorities of women of the left party that’s part of the coalition. But the speaker of the parliament, who is part of the coalition but from a centrist party, decided unilaterally to postpone the discussion. He justified his decision [by citing] the upcoming local elections [and said] he didn’t want to be disturbed by discussions about abortion.  

It caused a lot of anger among feminist organisations and politicians, as Poland is a country where we know that the lack of abortion rights is literally killing women. We know of at least six women who died because of the lack of access to abortion in Poland. In most of these cases, when faced with complications, practitioners refused to perform abortions that could have saved the women’s lives because they were afraid of being prosecuted.  

Poland’s minister for family affairs gave a powerful speech earlier this week, saying that in the meantime, if another woman dies, we will know who to hold accountable.  

With the far right expected to make significant gains in European Parliament elections in June, what are the implications for abortion rights?  

That's definitely a concern. We are carefully monitoring the trends for the upcoming elections. Of course, we keep pushing our key messages, one of which is free, safe, legal, and destigmatised access to abortion and reproductive services. Reproductive justice is an integral part of a feminist Europe, and essential in order to guarantee women and girls to live free from violence and oppression. Although it is worrying to see this conservative wave approaching, it’s not just about left and right. Just take Poland. The speaker who postponed the discussion is part of a party that identifies as liberal and centrist. It really is about political will in general, no matter which political party you belong to.   

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