French bill extending abortion time limit and restricting conscientious objection advances

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A bill extending the abortion time limit from 12 to 14 weeks and restricting conscientious objection passed its first reading Thursday in France's National Assembly.

The lower house of the country's parliament backed the proposed law Oct. 8 by 102 votes to 65.

Abortion was legalized in France up to 10 weeks in 1975. The time limit was extended to 12 weeks in 2001.

The bill's authors argue that the time limit should be extended by a further two weeks because thousands of French women travel abroad for abortions after their 12th week of pregnancy. They also say that they are seeking to "clarify" conscience protections and to allow midwives to perform surgical abortions.

The bill targets France's "double conscience clause," introduced in 1975, which recognizes both a general right to conscientious objection and a specific right related to abortion. The new law would require doctors and midwives who conscientiously object to give women the names of doctors and midwives who will perform abortions. 

Olivier Véran, the French health minister, has referred the proposed law to the country's National Ethics Advisory Committee, which is expected to deliver its verdict before the bill goes to the Senate, the upper house of the French parliament. The move was seen as indicating the government's ambivalence about the bill, which was introduced by members of Ecology Democracy Solidarity, a centre-left parliamentary group.

Official figures published Sept. 24 showed that the number of abortions in France reached a 30-year high in 2019. The French Directorate of Research, Studies, Evaluation and Statistics recorded 232,244 abortions last year, an increase from 224,023 abortions in 2018.

The National Assembly passed a bill Aug. 1 adding "psychosocial distress" as grounds for a medical abortion as part of the country's Bioethics Law.

The permanent council of the French bishops' conference issued a statement Oct. 6 noting that the bioethics bill would now be considered by the Senate. 

It said: "For a few weeks now, pressure has been mounting in the National Assembly to further extend the time limits for abortion under the guise of women's rights and equality, reducing filiation to a simple act of the will of those who claim to be parents."

"A child is no longer welcomed, it is desired, produced and chosen. Can a society be fraternal when it has nothing better to offer mothers in distress than the elimination of the child they are carrying?"

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