French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve delivers a speech outlining his new government program at the National Assembly in Paris on Dec. 13, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

France will soon have a new crime: online obstruction of abortion

(RNS) France will soon create a new crime that will make someone running an anti-abortion website as liable to a lawsuit as a protester blocking the door to an abortion clinic.

The new crime, called the “online obstruction of abortion,” won’t be an outright ban, because that would amount to government censorship.

But the law will be so broadly worded that abortion rights activists could sue websites that promote alternatives to ending a pregnancy or discuss abortion's possible psychological effects.

The French National Assembly, or lower house of Parliament, and the Senate have taken the first steps toward creating the new crime and the final bill to do so should be passed into law by February.

The bill has sparked some public debate, unusual in France, where abortion has been legal since 1975. Only two years ago, the National Assembly passed a resolution almost unanimously declaring it a fundamental right for women.

Still, abortions are only allowed during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. After 12 weeks, two doctors must approve the procedure and only if there is grave danger of injury to the woman or the fetus.

France has about 14 abortions per 1,000 women, roughly comparable to the U.S., where the rate was 13.2 abortions per 1,000 women in 2012.

The numbers may be somewhat misleading because French women seeking an abortion after the legal deadline can have one in nearby Spain or the Netherlands.

France’s Roman Catholic Church, which opposes abortion but does not wage a U.S.-style culture war about it, issued a ringing denunciation of the bill late last month in an open letter to President Francois Hollande.

Archbishop Georges Pontier, head of the bishops' conference, called it "a serious precedent for limiting freedom of expression on the internet (and) a limitation all the more serious as it affects questions of freedom of conscience. This seems to me to be a very serious attack on the principles of democracy.”

Laurence Rossignol, the Socialist government’s minister for women’s rights and families, disagreed.

"Freedom of opinion is not the right to lie,” she said in defense of the bill that treats the anti-abortion websites as frauds.

“These internet sites spread false allegations,” she said in the National Assembly. Their counselors “are not professionals, but in fact anti-abortion activists hiding behind the anonymity these hotlines give them.”

François Fillon, candidate of the center-right Republicans in next year’s presidential election, surprised voters by revealing during his party’s primary campaign this autumn that he, as a Catholic, was personally opposed to abortion. But he does not want to ban it and did not try to limit it when he was prime minister from 2007 to 2012.

Fillon’s comment came as the government, which has staunchly promoted social reforms such as same-sex marriage while its other political and economic policies earned it record-low popularity ratings, prepared for the latest in a series of laws it has passed to ease access to abortion.

The bill in question would expand the scope of a 1993 law aimed at stopping protesters from blocking access to abortion clinics. Once it is voted into law, violators would risk up to two years in prison and 30,000 euros ($31,900) in fines.

The bill would make it a crime to spread "by any means of communication to the public, including through the dissemination or transmission by electronic or online means, of allegations (or) indications likely to intentionally mislead (people) — with a goal of deterring them — about the characteristics or medical consequences of abortion."

Since coming to power in 2012, the government has made abortion completely free as part of the National Health Service, scrapped a requirement that a woman must be “in distress” to obtain permission to abort, and dropped a weeklong “reflection period” between applying for and carrying out an abortion.

It decided to act again in part because several anti-abortion sites were found to be ranked higher on search engines than the government’s own abortion information site.

Although their home pages appear to be neutral, the sites and their advice hotlines — run mostly by Catholic anti-abortion activists — are on closer inspection clearly against abortion and stress the physical and psychological damage they say the procedure can cause.

For its part, the government website presents abortion as a routine medical procedure and even carries a warning against websites that take a different perspective:

“You should systematically mistrust sites and hotlines that devote a large part of their contents to maternity and the so-called complications and traumas linked to abortion,” it says.

The anti-abortion movement in France is relatively small. In the early 1990s, there were scattered sit-ins at abortion clinics inspired by reports of similar protests in the United States. The 1993 law on “obstruction of abortion” effectively ended them.

A “Marche pour la Vie” (March for Life), also copied from the U.S. model, has been held in Paris annually since 2005. It attracts tens of thousands of marchers, far fewer than the hundreds of thousands who turn out in Washington every January.

Because France is so centralized and does not have powerful states, local laws to restrict legal abortion as much as possible — such as the “heartbeat bill” that Gov. John Kasich of Ohio vetoed Tuesday (Dec. 13) — are unknown.

Ironically, a major obstruction to abortion in France is the lack of appropriate facilities in state hospitals around the country. Main cities such as Paris have sufficient facilities, but budget cuts and a lack of doctors ready to work in provincial towns and villages mean that many parts of the country have only a few overbooked clinics that offer the procedure.

(Tom Heneghan is a correspondent based in Paris)


  1. Fascism from the left. What they enacted is an erosion of free speech. Like Germany’s law making denial of the Holocaust a crime. Their motivations might be humane but it is suppression nonetheless. Reminds me of what the far left here in the US is trying to do on college campuses – banning hate speech where they define hate differently than others might.

  2. The issue is far more basic than that. In most of Continental Europe, defamation (libel, slander, false representation) are criminal acts, not civil torts like they are in the US or UK. It leads to some overly harsh attacks on speech.

    Whether deliberate misrepresentation of facts on websites is actually free speech is highly debatable.

  3. France doesn’t, and has never, understood free speech.

  4. People can hardly agree on what constitutes a fact. In my field (science) It’s simpler. In other instances, it’s not as cut and dried as it seems. In the US Businesses advertisers regularly exaggerate and lie about the benefits of their products, even potentially dangerous food supplements. Candidates lie about themselves and their opponents. This is done on radio, tv, online and printed media. No real effective way to stop that on a large scale. Ultimately each person needs to be their own bullshit detector. Caveat Emptor.

  5. Of course with stuff like

    “But the law will be so broadly worded that abortion rights activists could sue websites that promote alternatives to ending a pregnancy or discuss abortion’s possible psychological effects.”

    It’s also highly debatable whether anything this law catches can be construed as “deliberate misrepresentation of facts”

  6. Which is why the idea of criminalizing untruth (not counting fraud) which is done in Europe, is absolutely chilling to freedom of speech in that regard.

    The bar for making a defamation case (Slander/libel/False representation) in the US and UK is very high. Courts generally preferring to err on the side of defendants. It also requires an aggrieved party to litigate them as well. As opposed to the State just coming down on a person or organization.

  7. Making it a crime to lie? Hmmmm. Such a law in the US would be the end of politics as we know it, especially among types like Karl Rove and the pres-elect and his minions.

  8. Actually, it would be the end of the First Amendment as we know it.

    Then neither you, nor I, nor anybody, would be safe anymore.

  9. Yes, French governing policies have been utterly feckless since the Revolution. France is a faded dowager of a Great Power, clinging to memories of past glory.

  10. Lying, mis-information, and political deception are not confined to any particular point on the political spectrum.

  11. Of course it is free speech, free speech is not by definition accurate or truthful speech, though laws against slander and libel properly provide a check on such speech, and that check functions better under civil circumscription rather than criminal as you have noted.

  12. If I were in France and running a pro-life website, I would indicate – quite correctly – that abortion, and encouragement of abortion, is a crime against humanity of murder contrary to international criminal law and to French domestic law that implements it: Article 212-1 of the Criminal Code.

    So declared by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal in United States v Greifelt & ors [1948].

  13. Since you feel so strongly against abortion, what is your plan to punish the impregnators?

  14. Feelings have nothing to do with it. The judgement of the Nuremberg Tribunal is what it is, and it’s indelible. If you think the NT got it wrong on abortion, what else did it get wrong?

  15. I haven’t said anything about the NT. You seem to feel strongly opposed to abortion. Am I wrong?

  16. I am opposed to abortion on moral grounds. But I don’t need to deploy morality when the precedents laid down at Nuremberg are conclusive authority for the proposition that the term “murder” as used in international criminal law has no “born alive” rule.

    That is to say, the wilful killing of a foetus in the womb is murder, without distinction from the case of a person who dies after having been born alive.

    See Nuremberg Trials Green Series Vols IV and V – “RuSHA Case”.

  17. I appreciate your use of a citation. Is that from WWII II? However, I’m not concerned with decisions made in Germany, and apparently France and most of western Europe isn’t either.

  18. It is from WW2. The Nuremberg Military Tribunals were international tribunals administering international law, and the precedents these Tribunals laid down were accepted by the international community as being of universal application.

    In 2006 the European Court of Human Rights rejected an application as inadmissible in the case of Kolk and Kislyiy v Estonia [2006]. The applicants had been convicted in 2003 of before an Estonian court of the crime against humanity of deportation committed by them in March 1949 when they were officials of the Soviet Union.

    They complained that their acts were legal under Soviet law at the time and were punished ex post facto.

    The ECHR ruled that their convictions were in order, as their acts were crimes under international law at the time when committed.

  19. The U.S. should employ the RICO (Racketeering something corurpt organizations) law to shut down antiabortion terrorist groups.

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