When Women Won France’s Abortion Battle

In 1971, with abortion in France still illegal, 343 French women organised to declare they’d had one. It was an act of defiance that broke longstanding taboos – and must be defended today.

Protesters from the French Women's Liberation Movement confront security forces in Paris in November 1972, during the Chevalier trial. (AFP / Getty Images)

In the autumn of 1971, Marie-Claire Chevalier realises she is pregnant. She does not want this child: she is sixteen, was sexually assaulted by a classmate, and comes from a working-class family with little money left to spend. But in 1971, abortions are illegal in France unless a woman’s life is endangered.

Marie-Claire’s single mother, Michèle, stretches her meagre salary to get her daughter a clandestine termination. It nearly kills the young woman, but she survives. A few weeks afterwards, Marie-Claire is arrested, as well as Michèle. Marie-Claire’s rapist, who was caught stealing a car and hoped to lighten his sentence, had reported her to the authorities.

The trial begins in 1972. The Chevaliers are represented by Gisèle Halimi, who was recently in the news for defending Djamila Boupacha, an Algerian freedom fighter who was tortured and sexually assaulted by French soldiers. There are many women at the trial, supporting Marie-Claire and testifying in her favour, explaining why they, too, had illegal abortions. These women have no problem admitting to what remains a criminal act: the entire nation already knows they terminated a pregnancy.

Who are these women, and why is their abortion already a matter of public record? A few months before Marie-Claire’s trial, they were part of a collective of 343 French women, who took to the media to tell the whole of France they had had an abortion. In doing so, they denounced themselves as criminals, and goaded an abusive state into punishing them. And eventually, they won.

Although abortion in France was outlawed in the sixteenth century, rigorous enforcement only started with World War I. The war had ravaged France, and with a raft of nativist policies, French politicians sought to rebuild the nation’s population. Accordingly, in 1920, 314 all-male deputies, elected by an all-male electoral body, decided that any woman found guilty of having an abortion would be punished with three years in jail and a hefty 5,000-franc fine.

This repression would climax in the 1940s. The hyper-conservative Régime de Vichy avidly encouraged denunciation and surveillance. On the factory floor, in hospital beds, on the streets of their own villages: nowhere was safe for women seeking to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. In 1940, 1,255 women were found guilty by French courts of having undergone an abortion, double the amount recorded in 1938. In 1944, on average, over ten women were sentenced every day for this charge.

Although the postwar period signalled the end of years of economic hardship and fighting, it left little appetite for radical change. Abortion was still a shameful taboo. A 1955 law allowed doctors to terminate pregnancies only if a woman’s life was in meaningful danger, but a Catholic-led backlash threatened further progress. The contraceptive pill was made available in 1967, but women under twenty-one needed written approval from their fathers. The only areas where abortion and contraception were relaxed were Guadeloupe, Martinique, and La Réunion, where racist panics about population growth lead the state to mollify the 1920 law.

And yet, something was brewing. 1968, in the words of journalist Patrick Rotman, propelled France from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. In this period, feminism found new vigour, and in 1970, the Mouvement de Libération des Femme (MLF) was born. The MLF were not interested in concessions: they protested, agitated through French radio and media like Elle, and threw raw meat at anti-abortion leaders.

After all, abortion had hardly disappeared. Wealthy women went to England, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Poor women had clandestine abortions in France. The procedure was often traumatic. Actress Bulle Ogier, in her autobiography J’ai Oublié, recounts how her friend nearly died of sepsis after terminating a pregnancy with a knitting needle. When Ogier had an abortion, she was sexually assaulted by the doctor who provided it. The same thing happened to the singer Brigitte Fontaine, in the late 1950s, during her second abortion. As for her first termination in 1956, Fontaine received clear instructions: if something goes wrong, don’t come back. For two weeks, she self-medicated a forty-one-degree fever with whiskey. In 1958, Nadine Trintignant, the famous director, managed to borrow the money and go to Switzerland: the doctor called her a whore.

These stories were as good as secrets, whispered in intimate circles but never disclosed in the public sphere. That is, until 1971, when the MLF was approached by Nouvel Observateur journalist Nicole Muchnik. Muchnik and her editor-in-chief wanted the famous members of the MLF to publicly announce their abortions. They argued that if respected public figures like Catherine Deneuve or Françoise Sagan spoke out, they would break the taboo on abortion and sway public opinion. The silence would finally end.

This was a dangerous proposition. Although arrests for abortion were less common than during the 1940s, they were still frequent. 289 women were sentenced for having had abortions in 1960, 720 in 1966, 340 in 1970. But the manifesto was also full of potential. These arrests thrived on silence and shame. Abortion only happened to strangers, to bad women. If the women of the MLF stood together, the French state would be strongarmed into a choice: arrest these beloved celebrities, or recognise the cruelty of its laws.

The reaction at the MLF was mixed. Sociologist Christine Delphy welcomed the plan, but rank-and-file members of the MLF were reluctant. They disliked the idea of striking an alliance with the bourgeois press, and were loath to make wealthy women the figureheads of a movement where poor women suffered most. Eventually, the MLF agreed, but the list would have to include far more than just celebrities. It would also feature MLF activists, of all ages, of all classes. Some would be named, others would remain anonymous. They would use the famous signatories as shields. In anticipation of the backlash, lawyer Gisèle Halimi founded Choisir, an action group, to defend them.

The manifesto was written collectively at Simone De Beauvoir’s apartment in Paris. Agnès Varda signed it, as did nuclear physicist Annie Sugier, translator Emmanuelle de Lesseps, and philosopher Monique Wittig, among others. Some, like journalist Yvette Roudy, put their name down without having had an abortion, out of solidarity.

On 5 April 1971, the front cover of the Nouvel Observateur read, in capital letters on a black background:

La liste des 343 française qui ont le courage de signer le manifeste « JE ME SUIS FAIT AVORTER ».

The 343 French women who had the courage of signing the manifesto: ‘I have had an abortion’.

A short accompanying text explained that a million women in France have abortions every year, under dangerous conditions. The manifesto demanded free, safe abortions, and affirmed that each signatory had broken the law by having an abortion.

None of the women were arrested. Still, many paid for speaking out. According to Claudine Monteil, the youngest signatory, some lost their jobs. Some were threatened. Some were cut off by their families. Claudine’s mother was a reputed academic, an educated, forward-thinking woman. But when she read her daughter’s name on the train, she broke down in tears in front of the other passengers. She thought Claudine’s life was over.

But Claudine had no regrets. Over forty-eight hours, abortion went from an unspeakable secret to a word on the radio, spoken of at family dinners everywhere in France. Something palpable had changed. As historian Bibia Pavard noted, for the first time in French history, it was women who were leading the conversation on abortion, and framing it as an act of liberation and autonomy. Later that year, the German magazine Stern published a letter where 374 German women, including actress Romy Schneider, made the same declaration. French doctors and gynaecologists subsequently published letters avowing they had performed the operation.

The manifesto swayed public opinion during Marie-Claire’s 1972 trial, and eventually, the judge acquitted the young woman. The manifesto’s third act came some years later: in 1975, the French government passed the country’s first law legalising abortion. It was a timid first step. Eligible women had to be ‘in distress’, receive medical counsel, and pay out of pocket. But it was a landmark—a small flame, ignited by the spark of the 343 women who had stepped forward in 1971.

In 1974, Claudine Monteil, the youngest of the 343, told Simone de Beauvoir that they’d won. De Beauvoir cautioned her: one crisis, and women’s rights would be upended. During the whole of your life, De Beauvoir told Claudine, you must remain vigilant.

When the United States repealed Roe v. Wade in June 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron immediately trumpeted his intention to enshrine abortion in the French Constitution. The French Left had already proposed this idea in July 2018. The President’s party, then a majority in the French assembly, had voted it down. Several members of Macron’s cabinet have credibly been accused of sexual assault. Some of his senior allies, like assemblyman Eric Woerth, have recently expressed that when forming a coalition in the French Assembly, the President’s party would sooner work with the Alt-Right than the Left.

Remain vigilant.