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France Expands Abortion Access in Two Key Moves

Positive Steps Advance Reproductive Rights

People attend a rally to defend the right of abortion in Paris, France on September 26, 2020.  © 2020 Pierrick Villette/Avenir Pictures/Abaca/Sipa via AP Images

Over the past 10 days, France made two notable advances for reproductive rights. On February 23, parliament voted to extend the legal timeframe for abortion under any circumstances from the twelfth to the fourteenth week of pregnancy. On February 19, the government eased access to medication abortion as an alternative to more invasive surgical procedures.

France’s 12-week time limit for abortion on request had forced thousands of women annually to travel outside of France to procure legal abortions. Its new 14-week limit mirrors that of Spain, while other European Union countries go further: abortion for any reason is legal in Sweden up to 18 weeks and in the Netherlands up to 24 weeks.

Meanwhile, the February 19 decree permitting medication abortions up to the seventh week of pregnancy via telemedicine, rather than requiring visits to health facilities, is another positive step. This practice, initiated briefly during the Covid-19 pandemic, reduces pressure on health systems and facilitates access to abortion for people struggling to reach medical facilities, including those in rural areas or who fear stigma.

Medication abortions are a safe and effective means of ending pregnancies that, according to the World Health Organization, women can self-manage up to the twelfth week of pregnancy where they can access accurate information and support from a healthcare provider if needed. The bill also eliminates a mandatory two-day waiting period before having an abortion, among other welcome measures.

However, obstacles remain. Despite some policymakers’ efforts, individual medical personnel can still refuse to provide abortion on grounds of religion or belief under a “conscience clause,” which is not sufficiently circumscribed to ensure it is not a barrier for women seeking abortions. Such policies, and lax enforcement of regulations to mitigate their impact, are major impediments to safe and legal abortion access in other countries too including Italy, Poland, and Romania. And France’s parliamentary vote followed months of contentious debate that surfaced persistent taboos surrounding abortion.

France’s government can and should do more to remove all barriers to safe and legal abortion, as called for by international rights bodies and the European Parliament. This includes ensuring that providers who invoke the “conscience clause” fulfill the legal obligation to refer people to other accessible abortion services, further expanding access to medication abortion via telemedicine in line with international standards, and working to combat stigma around abortion.

The French government’s moves are a step in the right direction. As other European governments roll back reproductive rights, France is showing that reproductive choice should be expanded, not curtailed.

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