France Drops Paternalistic Abortion Law, Demolishing Key Conservative Argument


France has just viciously snatched away one of the favorite bad faith arguments of anti-choicers: The claim that the United States has relatively lax abortion laws compared to “socialist” France. Conservatives have long claimed that American feminists are whiny and that we should be grateful to have more liberal abortion laws than Western European countries like France, on the grounds that French law required women to argue “distress” in order to get an abortion while Roe v. Wade does not require women to present any reason beyond just wanting an abortion. But that is changing now. France just passed a sweeping new gender equality law that removes the previous requirement, which means women are no longer required to provide justifications to obtain an abortion. And the government pays for it.

There’s been a recent resurgence in the claim that Western Europe is somehow harder on women who are seeking abortions, as chronicled by Katha Pollitt in The Nation. David Frum, Michael Gerson, and Ross Douthat have all recently argued that because of fairly strict laws on second and third trimester abortions, requirements that women provide a reason for the abortion, and mandatory waiting periods, Western European women actually have less access to abortion than American women. Frum even went so far as to argue that Germany’s much-lower abortion rate is due to these restrictions on abortion, even though, as Pollitt points out, the likelier reason is that universal health care plus better sex education means people are much better at using contraception in Germany than they are here.

Basically, the conservative argument was a master class in distorting the facts. Take France as an example. Before this change in their law, it is true that, on paper, France seemed to have a more restrictive process for getting an abortion than in the United States. They have more restrictions on later abortions, you had to cite “distress” as a reason for an abortion, and there is a week-long waiting period.

But it’s silly to assume you measure abortion access by what’s on a piece of paper. The obstacles put between women and abortion are much more punishing in the United States. For one thing, the government pays for abortion in France, and even when they didn’t cover all the costs, they covered 80 percent. By contrast, most American women pay cash for abortion. Even the waiting period in France, while lengthy, wasn’t that big a deal. As Pollitt points out, since you can get an abortion at the local hospital instead of having to travel what are often great distances to a clinic, having to wait a week isn’t really much of an obstacle at all. That’s probably the amount of time that you’d have between scheduling the appointment and getting it done anyway. And while the law requiring women to give a reason is paternalistic for sure, in countries that have that requirement, it’s usually treated as no more than a formality. After all, of course you’re in distress if you want an abortion. By definition, being pregnant when you don’t want to be is a stressful situation.

More importantly, France repealing the paternalistic “distress” law undermines a major false argument that started with the right but has been disturbingly accepted by some liberals as fact: That having a stronger social safety net—that is, practicing Western European socialism—necessarily leads to less freedom and more paternalistic laws. Many American commentators have noticed that most of the socialist-leaning European countries have laws requiring women to justify their abortions and mistakenly assume that the correlation equals causation, that the socialism created the paternalistic laws. Emily Matchar, writing for The Atlantic, made just this claim rather bluntly: “Paternalistic abortion laws are, perhaps, the flip side of generous government benefits: The government provides amply for the babies you do have, but in return it gets to quiz you about your reproductive choices.”

Ross Douthat went down a similar road, arguing, “So perhaps, it might be argued, abortion can be safely limited only when the government does more to cover women’s costs in other ways.”

The problem is that the correlation is just that—correlation. The reason that so many countries that lean to our left have paternalistic abortion laws is that these laws were passed a few decades ago, during the era of increased pressure for liberalized abortion laws. As with states in this country that liberalized abortion laws prior to Roe, male-dominated legislatures still assumed that the doctor rather than the woman herself should be the authority on whether or not she should remain pregnant, thus the requirement that a woman justify her decision rather than just get an abortion on demand. The assumption was women who want to abort for the “wrong” reasons wouldn’t get through, but what happens in practice is most abortions are signed off on by doctors because it turns out that women are pretty damn good at making this decision for themselves. The reason these laws are so paternalistic, on paper at least, is because no one has bothered to change them since they don’t constitute real obstacles to abortion, unlike the TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) laws in the United States.  Socialism has nothing to do with it.

With this change in the law, however, France adds some clarity to the entire situation, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that a country can both offer generous social benefits and let women take the lead when it comes to their own reproductive decision making. In fact, this change suggests that what countries like France have learned over the years is that empowering women to make their own choices creates the best possible outcomes, which is why they’re overturning outdated laws based on paternalistic treatment of women. Hopefully, other European nations will take their lead and clean up any lingering laws that make women feel like they have to justify their choices. And would it be too much to ask that the United States do the same?

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  • StealthGaytheist

    Bravo, France.

    If Conservatives actually thought generous government benefits resulted in reduced access to abortion they’d be all for them. It would be a win-win, after all. Women don’t get abortions and the precious baybees are well cared for. But as usual they prove that their money comes first, and all that crap about saving the zygotes is really about controlling and punishing women.

  • TheBrett

    I’m glad France cleared that up as well. I doubt that they were in any danger of the paternalistic requirements being enforced any time soon, but you never know – a rarely enforced law can still become a weapon of conservatives in the court system at some point in the future. It’s the same reason I’m grateful that Griswold v. Connecticut flipped laws on contraception even if Connecticut’s ban on contraception was virtually never enforced beforehand.

    • Amanda Marcotte

      Exactly. The problem is that, in countries that have these laws, all you need is one fanatic and reactionary doctor and suddenly women are facing hurdles they didn’t have before.