Easing France's abortion laws

France's rules are among the most conservative in Europe. Changes are expected to pass this fall.

The young women walk quietly into the waiting room, saying little even to the friends who accompany them. Despite the bright sunlight and the summer holidays, the mood is somber.

After a few moments, they are escorted into a conference room to meet with psychologists and social workers.

The women want abortions, and in France, consultations such as those at the Family Planning Center in Paris are required by law before the procedure can be carried out.

Twenty-five years after France first legalized abortion, following a long and emotional debate, the government has proposed the first major changes to the legislation, under which some 214,000 unwanted pregnancies are ended each year. The proposals, almost certain to be adopted by the National Assembly this fall, would extend the time limit for most abortions from the current 10 weeks to the 12th week of pregnancy.

The change would bring France more into line with other Western European countries where the practice is legal, and the general trend is toward granting increased access to abortion. Some permit abortions as far as the 24th week of pregnancy. About 5,000 French women travel to neighboring countries each year to undergo the procedure because of the 10-week time limit, according to the government.

More controversial, however, is a proposal to reduce from 18 to 16 the age at which a young woman would no longer need parental consent to undergo an abortion. Officials say some 10,000 girls under the age of 18 become pregnant each year in France, with 6,000 of them choosing to have an abortion.

"We are no longer living in an age when parents can tell a young girl what she can do with her life," says a young woman at the Paris center, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There are very few young people who get along well enough with their parents to be able to discuss issues such as abortion, marriage, or boyfriends with them."

Although the French have a reputation for sexual openness, nudity is common in advertising, and the number of practicing Roman Catholics - in this nominally 85 percent Catholic country - has dropped sharply in recent decades, French society remains highly conservative on social issues. The first wide-scale government-sponsored birth control campaign, for example, did not take place until recently, and the family endures as an essential part of the social fabric.

While some other strongly Catholic countries, such as Poland and Ireland, continue to ban the practice, France’s abortion law is among the most conservative in Europe. Requirements include an eight-day waiting period after consulting a doctor, the time limit during which the procedure may be performed, and the parental consent rule for teens. Finland and Belgium do not require any parental authorization, while young Austrian girls can legally decide to end a pregnancy on their own from the age of 14. In England, the age is 16, while in Denmark, Spain, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands parental permission is required up to the age of 18. Switzerland allows abortions – regardless of a woman’s age – only after two doctors agree to the procedure.

The government review has divided the medical profession and led to strong opposition from the Catholic Church and conservative groups, who say the proposal to lower the age limit is another step in undercutting the authority of the family.

Some groups who are not opposed to abortion rights, such as the National Federation of French Families, nevertheless support the current age limit, and propose that in difficult cases the young girl be able to choose an intermediary, such as a social worker or psychologist, to help her communicate with her family.

“We are strongly in favor of this dialogue because it is her family who can help the young girl,” says Federation vice president Dominique Marcilhacy. Supporters of the lower age limit point to France’s large and growing Muslim population, saying young girls of Algerian, Moroccan, or Tunisian descent may face grave consequences if forced to reveal they have become pregnant before marriage. Although the current legislation – referred to as the Veil law after Simone Veil, whose proposals led to the legalization of abortion in 1975 – allows a judge to authorize an abortion without the parents’ consent, critics say the procedure is cumbersome and intimidating. They also note that in some cases, the judge informs the girl’s family of the decision.

“There are parents, including many French ones, who simply cannot accept that their daughters have sexual relations,” remarks Martine Nawrat, a counselor at the Family Planning Center. “Today, young people are much more mature than they were 20 years ago. We have to live with the evolution of society, and the fact is that [some] young people have sexual intercourse when they are 15 or 16 years old.”

Some women who have undergone abortions before reaching the legal adult age, and who support lowering the age of required parental consent, nevertheless have mixed feelings about the possible effects.

“If a girl no longer needs to explain herself to her parents, there will be no one around to help her,” says one young woman, the victim of a rape. “If abortions can now be performed without the permission of the parents, there will be more and more abortions.”

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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