PARIS — French lawmakers on Thursday backed a proposal to enshrine abortion rights in the country’s constitution, in a move devised as a direct response to the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer.
But the bill, passed by the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of the French Parliament, will have to go through a complex legislative process, and face possible opposition in the Senate, before the constitution could be amended, leaving ample time and opportunity for lawmakers or voters to ultimately reject it.
Still, Thursday’s vote was a symbolic milestone at a time when the right to abortion is increasingly challenged in France’s European neighbors. In Italy, the family minister in a new hard-right government has spoken out against abortion; in Spain, many doctors deny the procedures; and last year, Poland put in place a near-total ban on abortion.
“Nobody can predict the future,” Mathilde Panot, the head of the hard-left France Unbowed party, which backed the bill, told the National Assembly, adding that the proposal was meant “to ward off the fear that grips us when women’s rights are under attack elsewhere.”
The effort to make abortion a constitutional right was prompted by the rollback of abortion rights in the United States in June, which sent shock waves through European countries and was seen as a red flag by many in France.
“History is full of examples of fundamental freedoms that were taken for granted and yet were wiped out with a stroke of the pen by events, crises, or groundswells,” the justice minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, said Thursday. “And this is even more true when it comes to women’s rights.”
Abortion in France was decriminalized in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade, under a landmark law championed by Simone Veil. Although no political party questions this legalization today, debates were raging Thursday about whether to amend the constitution.
Some lawmakers argued that such a move was unnecessary because abortion rights were not threatened in France, while others complained that the bill’s broad wording could allow for a further extension of the legal limits for ending a pregnancy, which currently stands at 14 weeks.
Fabien Di Filippo, a center-right lawmaker who abstained from voting, denounced those who “want to open the door to a right possibly unlimited in time.”
Hundreds of amendments were put forward to change the bill, including many on unrelated issues, such as immigration and the environment, in what sometimes looked like a filibuster.
“I’m not sure that this type of debate this morning does us any credit,” an exasperated centrist lawmaker, Bertrand Pancher, told his colleagues, lamenting the absence of a substantial debate.
There were also moments in the discussion when lawmakers were visibly moved with emotion.
Aurore Bergé, the leader of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, Renaissance, in the National Assembly, told her colleagues about her mother’s dangerous and painful abortion, which took place when it was still criminalized.
Bergé called on lawmakers to vote for the bill “in the name of all women, in the name of all our mothers who fought, in the name of all our daughters who no longer have to fight, I hope.”
The initial draft included a proposal to also constitutionalize the right to contraception. But left-wing lawmakers reached an agreement with Renaissance, which has a relative majority in Parliament, to drop the proposal and instead focus only on abortion rights in the hope of securing future Senate approval of the bill.
After the day of debate, the bill was overwhelmingly approved 337 to 32, with 18 abstentions. It was a rare example of bipartisanship in an otherwise factionalized Parliament.
More than 80 percent of the French favor the protection of abortion rights under the constitution, according to a poll released this summer by IFOP, one of France’s most respected polling firms. A recent petition supporting the bill has been signed by more than 160,000 people.
But there may be months to go before abortion rights are entered into the constitution, if the bill makes it that far.
The bill now goes to the right-leaning Senate, which may vote it down, as it did last month when a group of senators presented a similar proposal. And even if the bill passes the Senate, it will then have to be approved in a nationwide referendum, in keeping with procedures for amending the constitution — a cumbersome process that could have unpredictable political results.
This year, the French Parliament extended the legal limits to terminate a pregnancy from 12 to 14 weeks amid a heated political debate and despite Macron’s reticence on the issue. But France’s new time frame remains lower than in some European countries such as the Netherlands and Britain, where it is set at 24 weeks.