Academic journal article Population

Estimating the Number of Abortions in France, 1976-2002

Academic journal article Population

Estimating the Number of Abortions in France, 1976-2002

Article excerpt

The use of contraception and recourse to illegal abortion spread in France during the nineteenth century, at the time of the country's historical fertility transition (Le Naour and Valenti, 2003), while the end of the century saw the emergence of both Pro-natalist and neo-Malthusian movements. The former were alarmed at a falling birth rate that they supposed would lead France to ruin, and objected to the widespread use of birth control, while the latter argued for sexual relations freed from the risk of accidental pregnancy. The controversy was supported on the pro-natalist side by estimates of the number of abortions performed in France. In the 1910s, for example, the "repopulation" militant Jacques Bertillon estimated that there was a shortfall of 450,000 births for generation replacement in France, and that this figure corresponded to the number of abortions. The pro-natalist movement occupied a leading position in French society, whereas the influence of the militant neo-Malthusians favourable to contraceptive methods (and some in favour of legalized abortion) remained limited until the end of the Second World War. The 1920s saw stricter measures against abortion and contraception (an Act in 1920 prohibited the sale and advertising of contraceptives and abortifacients), culminating in 1942 with an Act making abortion a crime against the State and consequently a capital offence.

It was not until the early 1950s, under pressure from feminist movements, that the proponents of birth control gained influence in France. The founding of the voluntary organization la Maternité heureuse in 1956 and of the Planning familial in 1960, played a key role in this combat, leading in 1967 to the passing of the Neuwirth Act authorizing contraception, though the new law was not actually brought into effect. The feminist and family planning movements mustered forces again, this time to achieve the legalization of abortion. The estimated numbers of illegal abortions were used asan argument for the promotion of contraception and then for the legalization of abortion. For the first time, a clear distinction was made between abortion and contraception, and contraception was proposed as the surest way of reducing the widespread use of illegal abortion. It was also argued that it made no sense to prohibit a practice that was widespread and concerned all women, but was rendered dangerous by its illegality. In the mid-1960s, the lawyer Anne-Marie Dourlen-Rollier, a key figure in the proabortion campaign, gave the figure of 800,000 abortions a year in France. In 1971, the "Manifesto of the 343", a declaration by women of all classes who had had abortions, spoke of one million operations a year. An INED study commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Population in 1966 provided a lower estimate of some 250,000 abortions and 250 deaths a year (INED, 1966). This figure was obtained from the number of recorded obstetric deaths and the estimated abortion mortality rate based on the health statistics of countries in Northern and Eastern Europe, where abortion was already legal. A similar estimate (300,000) was given by Simone Veil in her speech to the National Assembly in 1974 presenting her bill to liberalize abortion.

On 17 January 1975, the Veil Act was passed for a five-year period, amid political controversy, thanks to the support of left-wing parliamentarians. It authorized free access to abortion in the first ten weeks of pregnancy. This authorization was accompanied by a number of measures designed to regulate, restrict and monitor what was still a controversial practice: women had first to be interviewed by a social worker, with a one-week period of reflection between the interview and the operation, minors required the consent of their parents, and the number of induced abortions was limited to one-quarter of a hospital's surgical operations. The Act also provided for the collection of statistics on all terminations carried out in France. …

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