On Legalizing Abortion
November 26, 1974 — Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly), Paris, France
Mr. President, Ladies, Gentlemen, Minister of Health, Minister of Gender Equality, and non-parliamentary members,
As I speak from this stage today to propose to the elected representatives of our nation a profound change to abortion legislation, believe me that it is with a profound sense of humility in the face of such a difficult problem as well as a great compassion for the breadth of resonance that this global issue provokes in each French person and a great consciousness of the seriousness of the responsibilities that we shall take on together.
But it is also with great conviction that I will defend a project deliberated by the entirety of government over the course of many years, a project that by the word of the president of the Republic ‘will end a disorderly and unjust situation and bring to one of the most difficult problems of our time a measured and humane solution.’
Today, if the government can put forth such a project, it is thanks to all of you — and you are many and of all backgrounds — who for several years, have striven to propose new legislation better adapted to the social consensus and to the realities known to our country.
Such a project is also possible because of the fact that M. Messmer’s government took the responsibility of presenting before you an innovative and courageous project. Every one of us will always remember the very remarkable and moving words of M. Jean Tattinger.
Finally, numerous are the deputies who make up the special commission presided over by M. Berger who heard from the representatives of many hopeful families, as well as the many personalities defending this issue.
Yet, some people still ask themselves: is a new law truly necessary? For those of you who ask this question, things are simple: There is a currently a repressive law in place and there is only to apply it. Others have asked since the beginning, and particularly since the start of the century: why has the law always been so rigorous, yet little applied? Others ask why Parliament should have to solve these problems now.
In what ways have things changed that now oblige us to intervene? Why should we not maintain the current principle and continue to only apply the law exceptionally? Why honor a criminal practice thereby risking encouraging it? Why legislate and portray a permissive society that favors individual egos in the place of bringing to life a moral standard of civility and of rigor? Why risk aggravating a movement of birth reductions by dangerously initiating it in the place of promoting a generous and constructive familial politic that permits all mothers to bring into the world and raise the children that they conceived?
Because all of this shows us that the problem is not dealt with under these terms. Do you believe that the objective of the government, and the government that preceded it should have come down to elaborating on existing legislation and then proposing it if they had thought that another solution was possible?
Public deputies can no longer avoid their responsibilities. There is too much now demanding your action: the studies and the works led for several years, the hearings of your commission, and the experience of other European countries. And moreover, the majority of you feel and know that we cannot prevent clandestine abortions yet acknowledge that we can no longer apply the criminal law to all women who would be punishable by its rigidity.
So why can’t we continue to close our eyes? Because the actual situation is bad. It is deplorable and it is dramatic. It is worse because the law is openly flouted, even ridiculed. The disparity between the infractions committed and those who are prosecuted can only be properly spoken of as repression, and it is the respect of the citizens for the law, and the authority of the state that are to blame.
When doctors, in their offices, infringe the law and make it known publicly, when the prosecutors, before proceeding, are invited to be references in every case presented before the Ministry of Justice, when social service organizations provide susceptible information to women in distress regarding facilitating abortions, when at the same ends, organize openly and even charter voyages to foreign countries, I declare that we are in a state of chaos and anarchy that can no longer continue.
But, will you tell me why we have left this situation to merely deteriorate and why this has been tolerated? Why do we not respect the law?
Because if doctors, if social workers, if even a number of citizens participate in these illegal actions, it is very well that they feel constrained: in opposition sometimes with their personal convictions, they find themselves confronted with real-life situations that they are not able to ignore nor navigate. Because in the face of a women who has decided to terminate her pregnancy, they know that in refusing their advice and their support that they are rejecting her in the solitude and anguish of an act already perpetuated in the worst conditions which risks to leave her forever scarred. They know that the same women, if she has money, if she knows how to inform herself, will go to the neighboring country or even to France in certain clinics and will be able to, without exposing herself to risk nor to penalty, end her pregnancy. And these women, they are not necessarily more immoral or more carless. They are 300,000 every year. They are the ones whom we rub shoulders with every day, and whose distress and dramas for the majority of the time we remain ignorant of.
It is this disorder that we must put an end to. It is this injustice that we must stop. I say this with all of my conviction: Abortion must be the exception, the ultimate resort for situations without recourse. But how can we tolerate it without it losing its exceptional character and without society appearing to encourage it.
I would like to share with you a woman’s perspective — and excuse me for doing so before this Assembly nearly exclusively composed of men: no women resorts to getting an abortion happily. We must listen to women and to their stories, for this misconception is a concern and will continue to be one if we do not hear them. The truth is, if this project takes into account the existing situation, a women is controlled and as much as possible dissuaded from terminating her pregnancy. Thus, we are seeking to respond to the conscious or unconscious desire of all women who find themselves in this situation of anguish, well described and analyzed by certain personalities that your special commission heard during the autumn of 1973. Because, truthfully, for those who find themselves in this situation of distress, who cares? The law rejects not only the scorn, the shame and the solitude, but also the anonymity and the anguish of the many women. Constrained from their hiding state, very often women cannot find anyone to listen to them, illuminate them and bring them support and protection.
Among those who are fighting today for a change to the repressive law, how many of you are concerned with helping women in distress? How many are on the other side of those who judge them as if it is the women who have faulted? How many of you are known to manifest for young single mothers the understanding and the moral support they have a great need for?
I know that there exist some and I will keep myself from generalizing. I will not be ignorant of the actions of those who are profoundly conscious of their responsibilities, doing all that is within their reach to help women accept their maternity. We will do our part to help their enterprise; we will make calls to them that will help us facilitate the social consultations provided for by the law. But the solicitude and the help, when they exist, will not always suffice to dissuade abortions. Admittedly, the difficulties women are confronted with are sometimes less bad than they are perceived to be. Some of these difficulties can be de-dramatized and can be overcome; but there are others that prolong and make certain women feel cornered by a situation without any other exit but suicide, ruin of their familial equilibrium or the misfortune of their children. Under these circumstances do we see the most frequent of realities, as opposed to an abortion being done out of propriety! If it were not so, do you believe that all countries, one after another, would have been driven to reform their abortion legislation and admit to those who were severely repressed in the past that they were from then on free?
Thus, conscious of an intolerable situation for the state and an injustice in the eyes of the majority, the government has easily renounced its lack of intervention. Otherwise, this would be laxity on our part. Thus, assuming its responsibilities, the state now proposes to a law that brings a humane and just solution to this problem in real time. Certainly, some people will think without a doubt that our only concern has been the interest of the women, that this is a text that has been derived with one perspective in mind, that there is hardly any concern for society, the nation, the father of the child to be born and much less concern for the child. Yet, I believe entirely that this not only an individual affair that only concerns women and not an instance where the nation is not involved. Yes, this problem does concern her primarily, but under different circumstances the same solutions for every singular case will not necessarily be required.
In the interest of the nation, France is young, and its population growing. Does such a law, adopted after liberalizing contraception, not risk leading to or initiating a dramatic fall in our nation’s birth rate? This is concern is neither new nor an evolution specific to France: a normalized movement of the decline in birth rate and in fertility has been present in all European countries since 1965, whatever their legislation in matters of abortion or contraception. It could problematic to look for answers to a phenomenon so general. Therein, no explanation can be provided at the national level. Rather, it is an indicative fact of the civilization and era that we are living in and one that obeys many complex rules of our society that even apply to less familiar foreign countries. Based upon the demographic observations made in many foreign countries, we cannot affirm the correlation demonstrated between a modification of abortion legislation and the evolution of birth rate and above all fertility. It is true that the example of Romania seems to contradict this observation, since the decision made by the Romanian government at the end of 1966 to return to a non repressive law, adopted 10 years earlier, had been followed by a great explosion of births. However, it is essential to remark that in this country, where there doesn’t exist any form of modern contraception, abortion has been the principal way to limit births.
The brutal intervention of restrictive legislation explains in this context why a temporary phenomenon has existed. Everything suggests that the adoption of this law, legal abortions replacing clandestine ones, once past a period of short term fluctuations, will have little effect on the death rate in France. However, the fall of our birthrate, if in fact independent of the state and of the legislation on abortion, is a worrying phenomenon, most particularly in the regard of the public deputies who have the pressing job of responding to it.
One of the first meetings of the advisory council, which the President of the Republic will preside over, will examine all of the problems of French demography and the ways of putting the brakes on a worrying evolution regarding the future of the country. As for familial politics, the government has declared it a distinct problem from that of the legislation on abortion and therefore, will not necessarily link these two problems together in one legislative discussion. Yet, unfortunately, this does not signify much because the government doesn’t prioritize this issue.
As soon as Friday, the Assembly will have to deliberate on the law proposal tending to the improvement of childcare costs’ allocations and the allocations to orphans which are especially intended for single mothers and their children. Furthermore, this project will reform the totality of maternity allocations and the conditions of the loan attributions to young couples.
I have prepared many diverse projects to propose to the Assembly. One of them favors working families by offering them social aid. Another improves the functional and financial conditions of maternal centers where young mothers facing tremendous difficulties during their pregnancies and during the first few months of their newborns’ lives are welcomed. I intend to make a particular effort in the fight against sterility, by removing all user fees for all consultations. Furthermore, I requested that Inserm launch, as early as 1975, an action of thematic research on the problem of sterility that despairs so many couples. With Monsieur the Attorney General, I am preparing to pull conclusions from the report that your parliamentary colleague M. Rivierz is currently writing on this subject.
Responding to the wishes of so many people who want to adopt a child, I decided to institute a superior council on adoption that will submit suggestions related to this problem to public deputies. Finally and above all, the government, publicly moderated by M. Durafour, will begin as soon as possible the negotiation of a progressive contract and propositions with content garnered from common agreements with the representatives of the families and familial organizations. This work will be submitted to the family advisory council that I preside over.
In reality, as the demographics underline, what is important is changing the conception of the ideal number of French infants per couple. This objective is infinitely complex. Furthermore, the discussion of abortion cannot necessarily be limited to financial measures.
The second thing absent from this project for many of you without a doubt is the father. The decision of pregnancy termination should not, for everyone who experiences it, be made only by the women, but also by the husband or partner. I wish for this to always be the case and I approve that the commission has proposed changing this mentality; but it is well understood that it is not possible to institute a legal obligation.
Finally, the third thing absent, is it not this promise of life that the women carries within her? I myself refuse from entering scientific and philosophic discussions that have shown the commission that the problem is unsolvable. Also, medically, no one any longer contests that the embryo carries in it definitively all of the human being potential that it will have. But it is not yet the future and the embryo will have to overcome many tribulations before eventually becoming a fragile link to the transmission of life. Is it necessary to recall that among the studies of the World Health Organization, out of 100 conceptions, 45 will be terminated over the course of the first two weeks, and that out of 100 pregnancies at the start of the third week, a quarter will not arrive to the end?
The only certainty we can rely on is the fact that at first a women is not fully aware that she carries a living being that will one day be her child. And this is, except for the women who are filled with a profound religious conviction, a shift between what is a future for the women that hasn’t yet become profoundly sentimental and the living breathing enfant who from the moment of its birth would awaken the lives of many. These women who would reject with horror the monstrous reality of infanticide, might consider or imagine the possibility of abortion.
How many of us, in the case of a loved one haven’t felt irreparably compromised or haven’t had the feeing of giving up! Indeed, it is evident that it would not be the same if this act were truly treated as a crime analogous to others.
Among those of you who are opposed to the passing of this proposal, accept that no one is any longer exercising any more pursuits. Surely some of you, less vigorously, would be opposed to voting on legislation that would limit oneself from forecasting the suspension of penal pursuits. It is either you perceive an act of particular nature, or, in all cases, an act that calls a specific solution. The Assembly does not want to have to at length deliberate this question. You all feel that this is an essential point, without a doubt, the base of the debate. It was suitable to evoke this before coming to the examination of the contents of this project.
In preparing the project that the government presents to you today, the government has prepared a triple pronged objective: to make a law truly applicable; to make a dissuasive law; make a protective law. This triple objective explains the ecology of the project. An applicable law first. A rigorous examination of the methods and the consequences of the cases, which would authorize abortion, raise insurmountable contradictions. If these conditions are defined in precise terms, for example, in the cases of great threats to a woman’s mental or physical health, or for example, rape or incest verified by a legal body — it is clear that even when these criteria are met, the modification of the legislation would not reach its goal since the proportion of pregnancy terminations for such reasons is low. In fact, the estimate of possible cases of rape or of incest could raise many foreseeable and practically unsolvable problems in any given period. If, on the contrary, there is an explanation given — for example, physical health or psychological equilibrium at risk or difficult material conditions or conflicting morals — it is clear that the doctors or the commissions would need to decide whether these conditions would be insufficient or sufficient criteria.
In such systems, the authorization of practicing pregnancy terminations and abortions is not a practice based on the personal belief of doctors or of commissions. Yet, unfortunately, it is the least prepared women who must find the most comprehensive doctor or the most indulging commission who will find themselves in a situation without an exit. To avoid this injustice, the authorization of abortion is given in many countries, almost automatically, giving way to many unnecessary procedures, even to a certain number of women who themselves who do not want to risk exposing themselves to a situation that feels like a tribunal.
If the legislature modifies this text vigorously, it shall put an end to clandestine abortions that are most often done for social, economic, or psychological reasons, where facing feelings of such distress, women decide to terminate their pregnancies under any conditions. This is why, by renouncing a formula more or less ambiguous or more or less vague, the government has considered facing the realities of these women and recognizes that the ultimate decision cannot be made solely by the woman herself.
To give the decision back to the women, is this not contradictory with the objective of dissuasion, the second of the three objectives that this project is committed to.
It is not a paradox that a women who feels the weight of the entire responsibility of her decision will hesitate more in establishing a system that would call for her decision being made in the place of her by others.
The government has chosen a solution marking clearly the responsibility of the women because she is the most dissuasive party as opposed to the emanating authorization of a third’s majority that would not become quickly a false pretense.
What is necessary is that the woman does not exercise her responsibility in solitude or in anguish.
In avoiding instituting a procedure that diverts such recourse, this proposal foresees diverse consultations that measure the gravity of the decision that the women must make.
The doctor here will play a crucial role, in fully informing the women of the well-known medical risks caused by the termination of her pregnancy and, especially, of the risks of prematurity, and even more by raising awareness of the problem of contraception.
The task of dissuasion and council circles back to the medical team and I know I can count on the experiences and the humanity of the doctors for they will try their best to establish over the course of a single discussion a confident and attentive dialogue that the women seek, at times even unconsciously.
Next, the project provides for a consultation with a social organization whose mission will be to listen to the women or the couple, when there is one, allowing them to explain their distress, helping them obtain the assistance they need if this distress is financial and making them aware of the reality of the obstacles that they face or that the feel like they face upon welcoming a child. Many women will learn thus that upon the occasion of this consultation that they can give birth anonymously and at zero cost and at the hospital and that the possible adoption of their child can offer them a solution.
It goes without saying that we hope that these consultations are as diverse as possible and that particularly, the organizations that specialize in helping young women facing difficulties can continue to welcome them and bring them the help that encourages them to overcome their challenges. All of these consultations will naturally take place one on one and it is well evident that the experiences and the psychology of people treating the women in distress will be able to contribute in a significant way by bringing them support that can change their opinions.
Furthermore, with the women, this will be an occasion to discuss the problems with contraception and the necessity in the future to use methods of contraception in order to prevent abortions in the cases where the women do not want a child. The information in regards to the regulation of births — better the dissuasion of abortion — appears to us essential and we are determined to make it an obligation, even as we are experiencing the pain of administrative closures, at the expense of establishments which terminate pregnancies. Thus, the two consultations that she will have had, as well as the 8 day period of reflection that will have been imposed on her, have appeared essential in making the women aware that this is not a normal or banal act, but a serious decision that cannot be made without having weighed the consequences and that it is best to avoid it at all costs. It is only after this awareness and in such cases where the women wouldn’t have renounced her decision, that an abortion will take place. Nevertheless, this intervention does not have to be practiced without strict medical guarantees for the women herself and this is the third objective of this proposal: to protect the women.
Firstly, an abortion can only be premature because of the physical and psychiatric risks that become too serious after the end of the 10th week following conception.
Next, an abortion can only be practiced by a doctor, as is the law in all countries who have modified their legislation in this domain. But it goes without saying that no doctor or medical assistant will ever be required to participate.
Finally, in order to protect the safety of women, the medical intervention will only be permitted within a hospital, public or private.
It is unnecessary to conceal that the respect for these dispositions of which the government declares essential, and of which are vigorously sanctioned by the penalties foreseen in article 317 of the penal code, entail serious government led reorganization. This will put a stop to the practices which have recently received bad publicity and that will not be only longer tolerated once women have the possibility to legally resort to interventions completed in safe conditions. In the same vein, the government has decided to firmly put into practice new dispositions that will replace those of the 1920 law in manners of propaganda and publicity. On the contrary, these dispositions will legalize providing information of the abortion law and on abortions; they will make illegal the incitement of abortion by any means and any incitation will be inadmissible.
With this assurance, the government will display its disapproval for abortions that take place for profits; the fees and hospital fees will not exceed the price ceilings established by an administrative decision in virtue of the legislation. In the same concern, and to avoid abuse of the law by certain countries, foreigners will have to justify residential requirements in order to proceed with an abortion.
Finally, I would like to discuss an action taken on by the government that has been critiqued by many: the non-refund ability of abortions by Social Security.
Aware that dental health, non-obligatory vaccinations, and corrective lenses are not or are not yet completely reimbursed by Social Security, how can we come to understand that the abortion will be reimbursed? If one sticks to the general principles of Social Security, abortion when it is not therapeutic does not have to be taken care of. Is it necessary to make an exception to this principle? We do not think it is so. This is because it necessary to underline the seriousness of such an act that has to stay exceptional, even if it in certain cases is a financial burden for women. What is necessary is that the absence of resources cannot prevent a woman from getting an abortion when it proves to be essential; this is why medical assistance has been forecasted for the most destitute. What is also necessary is to mark the difference between contraception when a woman does not desire a child (which has to be always encouraged and who’s reimbursement by Social Security is being decided) and the abortion that social security tolerates but does not take responsibility for neither encourages.
Rare are the women who do not desire a child; maternity is an accomplishment in their lives and those who have not known this happiness will suffer profoundly. Due to the serious difficulties facing women when they are faced with this decision, even if once the child is born it is rarely rejected and gives to his mother with his first smile, the greatest joys that she is able to know, some women will still feel incapable of bringing a child the emotional balance and solitude that they owe him. At this moment, the women will do everything in her power to either avoid it or to not keep it. And no one will not be able to prevent them from doing this. But the same women, some months later, her emotional or material life having been transformed, will be the first to wish for a child and will perhaps become the most attentive mothers. It is for these women that we want to put an end to clandestine abortions, of which she would not fail to resort to at the risk of staying sterile or due to suffering deep within herself.
I am arriving to the end of my report. Voluntarily, I preferred to discuss the general philosophy of the project rather than the detail of the dispositions that we will examine over the course of the discussion of the articles.
I know that a certain number of you cannot vote on this proposal, but that you know that no law should make abortion illegal or clandestine. To those of you, I hope to have minimally convinced you that this project if the fruit of an honest reflection which has taken you deeper into understanding all aspects of the problem and that if the government takes the responsibility of submitting it to Parliament, that this is only after having measured the immediate impacts and the future consequences for the nation. I will only give you a preview of the exhaustive legislative procedure who’s application the government proposes we limit to five years. Thus, under such circumstances, as it appears, over the course of this time period, the law that you would have voted on will no longer be adapted to the demographic evolution or to medical progress, yet the Parliament would revisit this issue again in five years taking into account new data.
Some others remain hesitant. They are conscious of the distress of many women and wish to bring them help; they fear the effects and the consequences of the law. To each of you, I want to say that, if the law is general and so abstract, it is done so to be better applied to individual distressing situations. If abortion is no longer banned, it no longer creates any right to abortion and as Montesquieu said: “The nature of human laws are to subject to accidents and are subject to variation to measure the changing will of man. On the contrary, the nature of the laws of religion is to never vary. Human laws ruled by good, religion ruled by what is best.’ Very well in this spirit, I extend many thanks to the president of your Law commission with whom I had the honor of collaborating with when he was the Attorney General, who for a decade has rejuvenated and transformed our prestigious civil code. Certain people feared that while taking on a new image of the family, one would contribute to its deterioration. It has not done anything of the sort and our country can now honor a civil legislation, most just, more human, and better adapted to society in which we live. I know that the problem that we are debating today concerns an infinite number of serious questions that trouble the conscience of everyone. But, definitively, it is a question of society.
I would like to finally say this to you: over the course of the discussion, I will defend this text, for the sake of the government, without ulterior motive, and with all my conviction, but it is true that there can be no true satisfaction in defending such a text – the best possible scenario in my opinion – on such a subject – that no one will contest, even the Minister of Health, is that abortion is a failure when it is not made dramatic event.
But we cannot close our eyes on the three hundred thousand abortions that each year disable the women of this country, that ridicule our laws and that humiliate or traumatize those who have seen abortion in recourse.
History shows us the great debates that have divided us French and those that sometimes appear to move us back time. These debates are in fact necessary steps to the formation of a new social consensus, which are inscribed in the tradition of tolerance and a measure of our country.
I do not fear the future.
The young generations surprise us at times in the ways that they differ from us — and we discover at times what is different about each of us; we have changed overtime from the ways we have been. But this youth is courageous, capable of enthusiasm and sacrifice like others. We know that we make them confident in conserving for them a life with supreme values.
Translation by Catherine Cousins.
Copyright 2019 by Catherine Cousins. Used by permission. All rights reserved.