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In France, abortion no longer a political issue

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In 1971, Simone de Beauvoir signed the 'Le Manifeste des 343,' a list of famous women claiming to have had illegal abortions. (AP/Jean-Jacques Levy)

This episode of Worldview was originally broadcast on August 8, 2011.

As part of our occasional series Here, There, we compare the abortion debate in countries other than the U.S. Monday we start in France.

At first blush, it would seem as though France has a lot in common with the U.S. when it comes to reproductive rights issues: Both legalized abortion in the 1970s and both had influential feminist movements that advocated changing the law and removing barriers to access.

But the similarities end there. In France, abortion has moved outside the political realm and into accepted medical practice.

What’s behind this divergence? In an interview, Indiana University political science professor Jean Robinson argued it all started with a reframing of the concept in public debate. 

In the 1970s, a group of several hundred prominent and powerful women, including renowned philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, signed a major newspaper ad admitting to having had an illegal abortion at some point in their lives. The media spectacle made it clear that abortion was an issue for all women, not just women seen as promiscuous or uneducated, spurring a national mood change towards the discussion.

The language that was used to talk about abortion was also changed. Beginning in the '70s, the French word for abortion was taken out of use in public debates, and replaced by a term that translates as “voluntary interruption of pregnancy.” The change helped desensitize the issue and kept the conversation about abortion within a medical scope.

“In France, abortion is a health care issue for women — not a moral, political or religious issue,” Robinson said.

That's a sharp contrast to the way the issue is framed in the U.S. — where abortion activists are still referred to as “pro-choice” or “pro-life.”

The difference shows. “France has fewer abortions than the United States — some of the lowest rates in Europe,” Robinson pointed out. 

There are several reasons for this, Robinson said, a big one being that sex education in France starts in the 6th grade. Also, there’s a family stipend provided by the government: For every child born, the family gets money from the state.

“There isn’t real pressure to not have the abortion in most urban centers,” Robinson said. “But there is an attempt to reassure women from the state, that they will have full support if they keep the child.”

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