04.05.134:45 AM ET

How France Became the Land of Free Abortions

It’s an American conservative’s worst nightmare: France now offers government-paid abortions to every woman who needs one. Janine di Giovanni on why it’s no big deal in Paris.

Teenage girls are now offered free contraception in France, thanks to a new law that took effect April 1. Perhaps more shocking to American readers, the French girls will also be offered free abortions at France’s excellent public hospitals—as will women of every other age. Previously, only a portion of the €450 operation was paid and French mutuelles, a.k.a. secondary insurance, picked up the rest.

Politicians are saying that the law is intended to help families where sex education is taboo and poverty is extreme. This is code for the non-people in France, the teeming disenfranchised North African and Muslim African populations that live on the outskirts of the big cities—the banlieues where youth unemployment reaches staggering proportions. In these deprived worlds, the future is a grim and endless cycle of deprivation.

The chances of getting out of these depressed housing projects are slim. Because of the way the French system has been contrived, the banlieue does not equal a chance at getting into mainstream French life. I once ran an extended study on how Europeans assimilate Muslims into society, and France had the lowest success rate in Europe—even behind the Germans, who treat their Turkish guest workers like dogs.

The struggles of young women in these communities is very real. Still, I am not yet clear how I feel about the free abortions. If they will be used as an inappropriate method of contraception, rather than as a last refuge for desperate woman who cannot afford to bring a child into the world, then we are on murky ground.

My opinion has been shaped by my Catholic upbringing and, now, life in the largely Catholic France. As a very young girl, I remember being unable to understand the importance of Roe v. Wade. At the strict Dominican convent where I was educated, my fifth-grade class spent all our time drawing protests against a law that would allow “the killing of unborn babies.” Then I became a teenager, embraced Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Faludi, and began to question the hatred I had been spoonfed by the nuns: that killing fetuses was a fast track to hell.  When I got my first boyfriend, I promptly went to the local Planned Parenthood and went on the pill. What if I had been 17 in the 1950s and had to risk unplanned pregnancy every time we made love? Would I have ended up in some back-street abortion clinic like my ultra-Catholic grandmother allegedly did, or worse, end up like an aunt who got pregnant unmarried, had to hide at home as her body changed, and then had the baby taken away from her at birth?

Anyone who saw the terribly sad Irish film The Magdalene Sisters, about the brutal treatment of young Irish girls in the 1950s who were unmarried and pregnant, will never forget the pain and abuse that they underwent.

My personal experience has led me to believe that while abortion should not be taken lightly, it can also be used to save heartache for scores of women who are not emotionally, financially, or otherwise capable of caring for a child. There is no question women deserve the freedom to determine what to do with their bodies. But I am not sure 15-year-old girls can grasp the later pain they might feel over a hasty or desperate abortion or unplanned pregnancy. My concern is a didactic one: will the free abortion law actually encourage women to have sexual relations at an earlier age?

There will surely be a political backlash. The French Constitution of 1904 enforces the concept of laïcité, or separation of church and state. However, France, like Spain and Italy, is still essentially a Catholic country. Since it is also a country that enjoys manifestations (demonstrations) at the drop of a hat, I am just waiting for the angry crowds outside my window on the Boulevard Raspail.

Perhaps this is where the education minister comes in to revamp the sex education program. After all, sex in France is no big deal. It is the country that produced Dominique Strauss-Kahn, sex clubs where ministers of the highest order attend to drink champagne and join into Dionysus-like orgies, and where many men have mistresses while their wives turn a blind eye. There is even a term for it, cinq a sept—the hours when lovers get together before going home to their respective partners.

This is the great thing about France. In a country going down the tubes economically, citizens are still concerned about their way of life—whether workers should get siestas after lunch, or whether teenage girls should get birth control pills. Sometimes, when I see people drinking carafes of wine at lunchtime and smoking cigarettes guilt-free, I think they really have their priorities right.