The most controversial neo-Malthusian idea was that women had the right to a safe and legal abortion. Few feminists accepted this idea in 1900. The CNFF, which had rebuffed Paul Robin on birth control, opposed abortion so strongly that it supported a subsidiary society to fight it: the Ligue contre le crime d'avortement ( League against the Crime of Abortion).
It is extremely difficult to estimate the number of abortions performed during the belle époque because the practice was illegal. Scholarly guesses range greatly, up to a remarkable high of 900,000 abortions per year. The practice of abortion was certainly common, and the incidence was increasing steadily. In rural France, infanticide (typically by smothering or by exposure) and child abandonment remained sufficiently common to suggest that the abortion rate might have continued to rise significantly. 1
Only the most radical tum-of-the-century feminists, such as Paule Minck, sought to legalize abortion. 2 Madeleine Pelletier was not the first feminist to take this position, but she became its best-known advocate. Pelletier, after all, was one of the first women physicians in France and held several public medical posts (see part 2). Her advocacy of a right of abortion had an ending so tragic that it seems worthy of Greek drama. In 1939, Pelletier, then sixty-five years old and half-paralyzed, was arrested on a charge of performing abortions. One of the pioneering students of psychiatric medicine, she was incarcerated in the psychiatric hospital of Pertay-Vaucluse, where she died within the year. 3
Madeleine Pelletier's 1911 book, L'Emancipation sexuelle de la femme (see part 5) contained her most vigorous statement of the right of abortion, a chapter entitled "La Maternité doit être libre" (Motherhood Must Be a Free Choice)