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Histoire d'un secret • Historical Background

Article 317 of the 1810 penal code: Any person who aids a woman to abort or any woman who aborts is to be punished with imprisonment. In the case of a doctor or other health officer, the sentence is forced labor.

Neo-Malthusians defended birth control and women’s right to dispose of their bodies. They still had the right to publicly defend their stance. After the First World War, the “repopulators” and opponents of abortion had several laws passed, including the law of July 31 1920. Abortion and the sale of objects allowing it became punishable by six months to three years in prison and a fine from 100 to 3,000 francs.

In 1923, anti-abortion movements, finding juries too lenient, managed to have people brought before the magistrates’ court (for criminal offences). The magistrate could thus apply the law much more strictly and severely. Article 317 henceforth sentenced a woman or health officer practicing an abortion to one to five years in prison and a fine of 500 to 100,000 francs. The woman who had the abortion risked six months to two years in prison. Medical staff who assisted or practiced abortions could be forbidden to practice.

Under the Vichy regime, several laws allowed capital punishment for abortionists.

On July 30 1943, Marie Louise Giraud was guillotined for performing 26 abortions.

1944, the provisional French government repealed the Vichy laws but the repression remained very strict. In

1946, 5251 sentences were pronounced. 1956, creation in France, at the initiative of doctors, of the “Happy Maternity” movement which lobbied for the legalization of contraception.

1960, “Happy Maternity” became the “French Movement for Family Planning”. The Planning got around the law of 1920. It did not do propaganda for contraception but made it available to its members.

1962, the publication of Marcelle Auclair ‘s book “The Black Book of Abortion” bringing together testimonies of women who had aborted went almost unnoticed.

December 28 1967, the Neuwirth Law legalized contraception but it took until 1969 for the law to be applied.

1969, creation of the ANEA (National Association for the Study of Abortion).

April 5 1971, The Nouvel Observateur's magazine published the Manifesto of 343, which marked an important step and inaugurated the lifting of a taboo: “A million women have abortions each year. They do so in dangerous conditions because of the illegality to which they are condemned, although this operation, when practiced under medical control, is extremely simple. These millions of women are surrounded by silence. I declare that I am one of them. I declare that I have had an abortion. Just as we demand free access to contraception, we demand access to abortion.” This manifesto brought together the signatures of famous women including Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Françoise Sagan, Christiane Rochefort, Catherine Deneuve, Gisèle Halimi, Delphine Seyrig, etc.

July 1971, following the manifesto, Gisèle Halimi founded, along with Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rostand, Christiane Rochefort, Delphine Seyrig and many others, the movement “Choisir - La cause des femmes” (Choose – The Cause of Women).

1972, Bobigny trial, Gisèle Halimi, with the support of Choisir, was the defense attorney for Marie-Claire – a 16-year-old – her mother and two other women who helped her abort. This trial became the trial of the “wicked laws” of 1920 and 1923 and received huge public attention.

1973 was a fundamental year in the fight for legalization. The Karman method by suction, less dangerous and less painful, was imported from India. Despite the fact that it was illegal, doctors including Joëlle Brunerie-Kauffmann practiced it. The same year, 330 doctors signed a declaration affirming that they practiced abortions.

April 10, creation of the MLAC (Movement for the Liberation of Abortion and Contraception). The MLAC helped women abort by among other things, chartering buses to England. Many demonstrations for the legalization of abortion.

May 19, Valery Giscard d’Estaing was elected President of France. He nominated Simone Veil Minister of Health.

November 26 1974, discussion in parliament of a law legalizing abortion was put forward by Simone Veil. Debates were stormy.

November 28 at 3.40 a.m. the project was adopted by 284 votes against 189. It was a provisional project, which had to be put to vote again in 1979.

From 1974 to 1979 it was difficult to apply the law.

1979, the law was finally passed with article 9 obliging all hospitals to set up an abortion clinic. 1982, abortions became reimbursed by Social Security. Very soon, many anti-abortion commandos were organized and undertook often spectacular and sometimes violent actions. 1988, authorization of the sale of the pill RU 486 known as “the morning after pill”.

1990, creation of the coordination of associations for the right to abort.

June 1991, John-Paul II compared the “graveyard” of abortions to that of concentration camps. 1993, The Neiertz Law was passed sentencing anti-abortion commandos to fines or prison.

2000, the legal cut-off time changed from ten to twelve weeks. Minors no longer needed parental authorization if accompanied by an adult.


There are countries, including in Europe, where abortions are still illegal and women still die following back-alley abortions, often practiced in dangerous hygienic conditions. In Ireland and Poland, the anti-abortion law is strictly enforced. In Spain and Portugal, only abortions for women whose health is at risk are allowed. In the United States, pro-lifers are gaining ground. In France, legislation is not under threat but hospitals and clinics often lack doctors for abortions and as a result, some operations cannot be performed in time.