Abortion Global

France becomes the first country to enshrine abortion access as a constitutional right

Greg Dunlap, Licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED

Last Monday, French lawmakers approved a bill that amends the constitution to include the right to abortion. France’s landmark decision marks the first of its kind, making France the only country in the world to explicitly safeguard  abortion rights within their national constitution. French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal encouraged lawmakers to make France an example in the fight for equality saying, “we have a moral debt to women.”

This is not, however, France’s first time making great strides for women’s rights. In the 1980s, it was a French drug company, Roussel Uclaf, that developed the abortion pill Mifepristone, and France became the first country to officially approve the drug. By 1988, Mifepristone was approved and on the market for public distribution. The French health minister at the time stated “from the moment governmental approval for the drug was granted, [mifepristone] became the moral property of women, not just the property of the drug company.”  

In 1989, the Feminist Majority Foundation began working to get the drug approved in the United States. However, Roussel Uclaf was owned by a German company, Hoechst AG, who would not allow the drug to be approved in any country outside of France, Great Britain, and Sweden in order to avoid the proliferation of the drug throughout the rest of the world. FMF formed a scientific committee that traveled to France to assess the safety of the new drug and met with Hoechst to advocate for the United States’ access. FMF’s committee discovered the numerous benefits of the drugs for people with a uterus, such as treatment of Cushing’s syndrome. Following their trip to France, FMF leadership intensified their campaign for RU486 (Mifepristone) and Contraceptive Research, testifying before Congress and the FDA and gathering over 900,000 petition signatures.  

In 1997, former Roussel Uclaf CEO, Édouard Sakiz, formed a new company, Exelgyn S.A., and secured the rights to the manufacture and sale of Mifepristone from Hoechst. Finally, in 2000, Mifepristone was officially certified by the FDA for legal use in the United States, over 10 years after France approved use of the drug and after a long campaign by FMF.

Today, as we see increased restrictions to Mifepristone access after the overturn of Roe v. Wade and a Texas circuit court decision that challenges the 20 year FDA approval, we find ourselves in a similar place as we were 20 years ago, with France making great strides for women’s rights and bodily autonomy, and the U.S. continuing to lag behind. As we celebrate France’s win, we are invigorated to further our own fight, and better secure the personal freedoms of all women and people who need access to reproductive health care.

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