Saturday, 16 April 2016 10:11

France Eases Abortion Restrictions in Sweeping Equality Law Called "historic" step in gender equality push

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France Eases Abortion Restrictions in Sweeping Equality Law Called "historic" step in gender equality push France passed legislation this week allowing women to get abortions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy with no questions asked, lifting previous restrictions as part of a sweeping and historic law meant to increase gender equality in the country. Previously, a French woman could only get an abortion if her condition put “her in a situation of distress.” The new law, signed Tuesday by French President François Hollande, also ensures women can access information about obtaining abortions, Reuters reports. The legislation provides protections for domestic abuse victims and supports more equal division of childcare and representation in politics. And it strives to creates a more equal job environment by encouraging men to take paternity leaves. BACKGROUND Law No. 75-17 of 18 January 1975 liberalized the abortion law of France. Prior to 1975, the performance of abortions was governed by legislation that prohibited abortion except to save the life of a pregnant woman when it was seriously endangered. Law 75-17 was introduced for a five-year trial period and was adopted as a permanent law by the Parliament in December 1979, with some amendments. Although the law begins by providing that “the law guarantees the respect of every human being from the commencement of life”, it nonetheless allows an abortion to be performed before the end of the tenth week of pregnancy by a physician in an approved hospital when a woman who is “in a situation of distress” because of her pregnancy requests the abortion. The physician must inform the woman about the risks involved and provide her with a guide to the rights and assistance provided by law to families, mothers and their children, as well as inform her of the possibilities for adoption should she decide not to terminate the pregnancy. The woman must consult an appropriate social worker or family counsellor about the interruption of the pregnancy, and if she still desires to terminate the pregnancy, she should renew her request in writing, no earlier than one week from the time of the first request. If the woman is an unmarried minor, consent of one of the persons who exercises parental authority over her or, if this is not possible, the consent of her legal representative is required. The abortion may be performed by the physician whom the woman first consulted or by another physician. If the pregnancy poses a grave danger to the woman’s health or if a strong probability exists that the expected child will suffer from a particularly severe illness recognized as incurable, an abortion may be performed at any time during pregnancy provided that two physicians certify, after an examination, that the health of the mother or foetus is at risk. Law No. 79-1204 of 31 December 1979 amended the 1975 Law. Many of the amendments introduced serve to clarify the procedures to be followed in the application of the law. Others are designed to ensure that women desiring to terminate a pregnancy are fully informed as to the alternatives to abortion and the availability of assistance. The 1979 law specifies that, should the one-week waiting period for consultation cause the 10-week period of pregnancy to be exceeded, the physician may accept the renewed request as early as two days after the initial request. The law clarifies that, if the woman is a minor, she must consent to the abortion outside the presence of her parents or legal representative. The 1979 law also amended section 317 of the Penal Code, under which a person performing or attempting to perform an illegal abortion on a pregnant or supposedly pregnant woman, with or without her consent, is subject to one to five years’ imprisonment and payment of a fine of 1,800-100,000 French francs. If this person habitually performs such acts, he or she is subject to five to 10 years’ imprisonment and payment of a fine of 18,000-250,000 francs. The 1979 law also made a woman who performed or attempted to perform an abortion on herself subject to six months to two years in prison and payment of a fine of 360-20,000 francs. After 1979, further legislation relating to abortion was approved. Decree No. 80-285 of 17 April 1980 required regional hospital centres and general hospital centres to have facilities to perform abortion and to provide information and medical procedures related to birth control. Decree No. 88-59 of 18 January 1988 added public hospital establishments with surgical or obstetric units to this list. Law No. 82-1172 of 31 December 1982 extended social security coverage to 70 per cent of the costs of care and hospitalization associated with lawful termination of pregnancy. Perhaps the most significant legal development since the passage of the 1975 abortion legislation, has been the approval by the French Government in late 1988 of RU-486, the so-called “abortion pill”, manufactured by Roussel-UCLAF. The use of the drug is closely regulated. On 29 December 1988 the Government issued an order setting forth strict requirements on the purchase, storage, dispensing, and recording of use of RU-486. On 22 February 1990 it issued Circular 90-06, which outlines the procedures to be followed with regard to the use of RU-486. The drug can be used no later than the forty-ninth day of amenorrhoea and it must be taken in the presence of a physician. The patient must be examined by a physician 48 hours afterwards to be administered a prostaglandin, and one week later to verify the termination of pregnancy. Currently, RU-486 is used to induce 19 per cent of all abortions and 46 percent of all abortions performed in the first seven weeks of pregnancy. The most recent development in French abortion law was occasioned by the activities of a small number of anti-abortion protesters. In the early 1990s, they began a campaign of harassment of clinics where abortions were performed and of persons performing abortions. They blockaded and invaded a number of hospitals and tried to discourage individual physicians from performing abortions. To respond to such attacks, the Government in late 1992 enacted legislation establishing new criminal penalties in the Penal Code to combat disruptive activities. Under these provisions, persons who prevent or attempt to prevent a voluntary termination of pregnancy by disrupting access to or the free movement of persons into and out of clinics or hospitals by threatening or engaging in any act of intimidation against medical and non-medical personnel are subject to fines and imprisonment. The provisions also apply to acts directed towards abortion counselling and requests for abortion and allow organizations established to protect the right to contraception and abortion to join as a party in suits brought against such obstruction. In addition, the law introduced one substantive amendment into the abortion laws dating from the 1970s. It repealed provisions of the Penal Code that criminalized a woman’s performing or attempting to perform an abortion on herself. The rationale of the sponsors for this provision was that women who resorted to self-abortion through despair or ignorance or because they lacked resources should not be further penalized.
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