The French Constitutional Amendment on Abortion

“The enshrinement of the right to abortion in the French Constitution has been a historic demand of feminist organizations since I can remember. But for the past decade, this demand has had little resonance with the French population. Many felt that the Constitution would not have to be invoked to defend this right. I would even go so far as to say that many thought that this right was not at risk. But then, two years ago, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade and everything changed. Millions of people suddenly realized that, unfortunately, the right to abortion can be won and then lost. It’s an ongoing battle.” (International Planned Parenthood Federation)

 

“It’s impossible to tell if abortion rights won’t come into question in the future in France,” Mathilde Panot, head of the left-wing France Unbowed group in the National Assembly, told POLITICO. “It’s important to capitalize when we have the public on our side.” (Politico Europe)

By pushing forward the proposal, Emmanuel Macron looked to send a strong message of support for reproductive rights | Pool photo by Gonzalo Fuentes via AFP/Getty Images

On March 4 2024, a special joint session of the French Parliament at the Palace of Versailles voted 780 to 72 to amend the Constitution to enshrine abortion as a “guaranteed freedom.” France became the only country to explicitly guarantee this right in its Constitution.  

The coverage by the mainstream media had two dominant framings.

The first is that the Constitutional Amendment was a reaction to the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is mentioned in the lead of just about every article, from French as well as international media sources. Local feminist organizations and women’s rights groups got anxious and decided they better do something before that happened in France.

The second is that abortion rights were never really in doubt and the Constitutional Amendment was a move by Macron to stick it to the right. There is massive and universal support for abortion rights across the citizenry and all parties, so Macron passed this on International Women’s Day just to make them squirm.

Both of these can be true and probably are.

The Historic Vote, Parliament of Versailles, March 4, 2024 Source: Emmanuel Dunand/A FP/Getty Images

Doubt and anxiety are an understandable reaction to a feeling of threat. Supporters of abortion rights have been fighting this battle in France for a long time and it was just two years ago that there was a battle on extending the legal limit for ending a pregnancy from 12 to 14 weeks.  

What stood out to me is the use of a policy change in the US as the impetus for action. We don’t see this kind of cross-national referencing very often; but I suspect we will see more in the future as there are a lot of related trends supporting this type of global activity. For example, we see:

(1) The internationalization of interest organizations.

(2) The rise of government structures that transcend national boundaries like the European Union.

(3) The universal desire and need for information.

(4) Massive changes in digital technology, social media, and the resultant transformation in all forms of exchange, including online transnational networks and transnational ideological echo chambers.

(5) The dramatic rise in the complexity of policy making networks.

Take Planned Parenthood. The Mouvement Français pour le Planning Familial (MFPF) is a Feminist organization made up of 70 groups in France. It is a member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) which consists of 149 member organizations that work throughout the world. The IPPF also has a European network. The global activities of the US-based Planned Parenthood, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) are run by Planned Parenthood Global, which is actively engaged and is a member of the IPPF. This is just one mode of organizational activity.

I think the dramatic rise in exchange has resulted in more frequent interactions, a stronger and more clearly defined sense of purpose, and a greater sense of community and solidarity. When the Supreme Court in the US acts, this is not just an American problem, this is a universal threat to all who care about abortion rights. If I was to offer a description of the process, it would look like this.

The US Supreme Court makes a ruling and the immediate individual reaction is emotional. It may be fear, disgust, anger, surprise, sadness, or a combination of some form. Some of these emotions will be shared with others as a lot of people feel threatened. The collection of these shared responses makes up the global body of shared interest.

This group, because of physical changes in the world, act more as a “felt community” than they would have without these changes. They emote and behavioral responses follow. The group now has a stronger sense that they are all in this together. A perfect application of the creative power of emotions.

Source: Kiran Ridley/AFP via Getty Images

Emotions that Do Something      

It is also possible that I am wrong and this is all an inside game. That is the argument of Sara Ahmed, a feminist writer of note, who did some of her earlier work on drawing a distinction between what emotions create and what they do.

“It is not just that we feel for the collective (such as in discourses of fraternity or patriotism), but how we feel about others is what aligns us with a collective, which paradoxically ‘takes shape’ only as an effect of such alignments. It is through an analysis of the impressions left by bodily others that we can track the emergence of ‘feelings-in-common’.”

In this interpretation, we imagine a global body that wants to take away abortion rights, while at the same time we imagine a global body that wants to maintain them.

Our emotions dictate how we feel about these global bodies, it determines the “us” and the “them.” That social response, the taking of sides, is a product of the intensity of our feelings or what Ahmed calls sensationalism.  Ahmed references a Martin Heidegger quote from Being and Time (1927):

“That which is detrimental, as something that threatens us, is not yet within striking distance, but it is coming close… As it draws close, this “it can, and yet it may not” becomes aggravated. We say, “It is fearsome.” This implies that what is detrimental as coming-close carries with it the patent possibility that it may stay away and pass us by; but instead of lessening or extinguishing our fearing, this enhances it.”

You have a fear that France may someday restrict abortion rights. As that fear intensifies, the global community becomes what Ahmed refers to as more “sticky.”

That fear is constant, the sensations are not. The organized interests that wish to restrict abortion rights could disappear in France, and one would think that with the passage of the amendment, the issue is now off the agenda. But that fear will still exist. You can have a fear of flying, and once you get home and arrive safely, you still have the fear of flying.

Individuals in France (or the world for that matter) who are part of the abortion rights “felt community” fear the loss of rights. When one of the most important countries in the world decides to restrict them, that is a threat to “us”. You can be sitting in Toulouse, find out about what happened in the US, and feel anxious about the future.

How does this Work?

How do bodies surface in relation to other bodies? Ahmed thinks of stickiness as something that happens in the physical world where adhesion is a force that binds together. Just about everybody from this theoretical perspective starts with Durkheim. He had the idea that people had two modes of consciousness, the individual and the collective; we switch back and forth when needed. We spend most of our lives at home in the “executive” or individual mode, but on occasion, say there is a sense of threat, that mode is replaced by our communal mode.

There is a sense that we need help, we need to be more open, we need to be more inclusive, we need to cooperate. This is stickiness. (Evolutionary psychologists have been talking about this for some time; they don’t use the term “sticky” however.)

To see if this makes any sense. I took a look at the  IPPF website prior to the amendment passing.

“The enshrinement of the right to abortion in the French Constitution has been a historic demand of feminist organizations since I can remember. But for the past decade, this demand has had little resonance with the French population. Many felt that the Constitution would not have to be invoked to defend this right. I would even go so far as to say that many thought that this right was not at risk. But then, two years ago, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade and everything changed. Millions of people suddenly realized that, unfortunately, the right to abortion can be won and then lost. It’s an ongoing battle.”

One thing you notice immediately; the “other” or the “them” is never mentioned. This is about the reader, and I suspect they know the reader is already on their side. We see:

The setting of futurity: what may happen to abortion rights.

The defining of their side: we are feminist groups that are demanding the enshrinement of the right to abortion.

The attempt to sensationalize: people “felt” this was not necessary, but because of what happened in the US, now they should. The fear is there, it has always been there. But now they appeal to it.

The sowing of the seed of doubt: there are no givens, this is all probabilistic, we have no idea whether this will work.

The desire to make this stick. This is an ongoing battle, but now is the time for use to come together.

Is there any Value to this?

There is a lot to like here, and we can see the value of this approach in understanding all types of global bodies. Angry white males, nationalists, religious groups, Trump supporters, the people who stormed the US Capitol, just about any collective body out there who thinks someone is out there to take away what they love and value.

Thinking of “us” and “them” as imaginative bodies opens the door for all kinds of insights. The obvious is that most of this has no direct basis to a perceived reality. These global bodies live in a created world.  If you wish to escape and look beyond the here and now; if you wish to live in a world of possibility as opposed to reality; if you find it tough to live with the truth; this is your world.

What is striking about all of this, is that it runs completely counter to the literature that praises the statistical power of aggregation. The popular version of this is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. I’ve taught this argument in class for years; mostly as a counter to all the individual level evidence that shows people don’t have a clue as to what is going on in the world and that there is no real structure to their thoughts. I always wondered what would be the emotional aggregative equivalent for people who live in the imagined (emotive) as opposed to the perceived world. Ahmed’s work would be a great place to start. I have to admit, the stuff she is writing about has far more empirical appeal.

 

 

A picture of Calvin Mouw

Calvin is a retired Professor of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

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