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As France Makes Abortion a Constitutional Right, Evangelicals Seek to Promote Culture of Life

Despite disappointment over the vote, churches see opportunities to love and serve.
As France Makes Abortion a Constitutional Right, Evangelicals Seek to Promote Culture of Life
Image: NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty
Protestors taking part in a silent pro-life demonstration in Paris as the Senate begins debates on the inclusion of abortion in the constitution.

In a rare joint session at the Palace of Versailles on Monday, lawmakers voted 780 to 72 to enshrine abortion access in the constitution, making France the first country in the world to do so.

While abortion is already legal in France, the parliament acted in response to the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022 as well as the rightward political swing in countries around the world. The French government wanted to shore up its existing laws ahead of any potential gains by the political right in France’s next presidential election in 2027, even though none of the political parties are advocating an end to abortion.

The vote easily exceeded the threshold of three-fifths of the senators and deputies needed to amend the constitution, which now states there is a “guaranteed freedom” to abortion in France. While many people cheered the decision, pro-life voices within the country’s small evangelical population (making up about 1 percent of the population) expressed concern. A group of around 2,500 demonstrators, rallied by the organizers of the annual Marche pour la Vie (March for Life), gathered in Versailles on Monday as members of parliament arrived for the vote.

“I think it is really important to witness that many French do not agree with the inscription of abortion in the constitution,” said Nicolas Tardy-Joubert, president of Marche pour la Vie. “This [demonstration] is key to showing that there is an alternative mindset to public life in our country. … We should protect life, and we cannot add a guaranteed liberty in our constitution to kill somebody.”

Tardy-Joubert noted that while it was a day of sorrow, “it should also be a day for hope, because we need to wake up the concerns and tend the hurts. … It is a long-term process.”

In his speech before the historic vote, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal hailed the addition to the constitution as a second victory for Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and French health minister who championed the 1975 law that legalized abortion in France, known as the Veil Act.

Yet a statement by the National Council of Evangelicals in France (CNEF) noted that the Veil Act viewed abortion as a last resort: “Exception was to be the foundational principle. Distress was to be the criterion.” It pointed out that Veil warned abortion should be of an “exceptional nature” so that society wouldn’t appear to encourage it, but rather dissuade it.

But now, the statement noted, “Guaranteed freedom has become the foundational principle. The criterion of distress has been removed from the law.”

The Evangelical Protestant Committee for Human Dignity (CPDH) similarly believes that the move makes abortion seem like the government’s de facto solution for women facing unplanned pregnancies.

“This isolation in the face of the abortion decision is a form of abandonment by the public authorities, in the face of the distress a woman may experience at a delicate moment in her life, without providing her with any alternative other than to put an end to the life she carries within her,” the group said in a statement. “The freedom we offer is also the support we deprive her of.”

CPDH further noted that Monday’s vote, in which voluntary termination of life became one of the values of the Republic, will be viewed as “a political step forward for President [Emmanuel] Macron—one he naturally welcomes—but also a real ethical setback.”

Marjorie Legendre, a pastor, seminary professor of ethics and spirituality, and member of the Commission d’Éthique Protestante Évangelique (CEPE), senses that the inclusion of abortion in the constitution is a wake-up call for French evangelicals. Rather than simply opposing abortion privately, now they are speaking about it more openly in the church and in society.

Normally, the government holds listening tours and invites input and public debate when it comes to big issues, but that didn’t happen with the decision to constitutionalize abortion. Erwan Cloarec, president of CNEF, said that though the government holds meetings with his organization and other religious groups on other topics, it did not invite input on this one. He said that, to his knowledge, the government didn’t even give a hearing for the Catholic church, which still holds historical sway in France. Despite this, “it’s still our job to explain what we believe.”

Legendre—speaking from her personal opinion rather than as an institutional representative—called attention to the way the government is prioritizing a woman’s right to choose over the rights of children.

“I have the impression that we’re putting so much emphasis on women’s rights that we’re forgetting the right of the unborn child,” Legendre said. “But who is the weakest in the story? Christians are called to defend the weakest. I’m not saying that the rights of women—who may also be in a fragile situation—and the rights of the unborn child should be pitted against each other, but there is a disproportion in favor of women’s rights alone.”

While enshrining abortion rights in the constitution doesn’t bring any immediate changes in practice, as laws protecting abortion are already in place, some evangelicals are concerned that it may impact other forms of liberty. For example, CNEF said in its statement, “Evangelical Protestants of France call on the government to ensure that women who so wish are offered the freedom and means to keep their child or to entrust their child to someone else.”

Some also worry that the constitutional change could impinge on medical professionals’ right to choose not to perform procedures that go against their conscience. Legendre said she doesn’t think the conscience clause is legally under threat since it is part of the French human rights declaration. But she’s concerned that, in practice, doctors or nurses could face pressure to perform abortions, which ultimately weaken the freedom of conscience clause.

While Christians in the West may view what is happening in France as a cautionary tale, Cloarec noted that it is essential to consider the distinct cultural and historical contexts within each country.

“Our posture is to try to be constructive and credible, to dialogue with the country’s authorities without being confrontational, aware of living in a secularized context but without giving up on saying what we believe,” Cloarec said. Ultimately, “we wish to be the church of Jesus Christ. That is to say, loving and welcoming to all.”

As for what’s next, Luc Olekhnovitch, president of the CEPE and a pastor for 30 years, said he’s glad CNEF published a press release so that there’s a public-facing statement. Beyond that, churches have work to do. “The cultural battle is lost on this issue,” he said. “On the other hand, we mustn’t cut off the cultural battle in the churches—the battle to respect life itself, from conception to death.”

According to Marche pour la Vie’s Tardy-Joubert, there are still opportunities to prevent abortions from happening. He noted that, according to a 2020 study by the pro-life group Alliance Vita, 88 percent of French people want to understand the causes and consequences of abortion, which number about 200,000 a year in the country.

“So we think the [members of parliament] and senators should involve themselves in making inquiries to better understand why we have so many abortions and what the consequences are in terms of public health, in terms of demography, in terms of economics,” he said. “The target to reduce abortion by half in France, for example, is possible if we want to have the politics put in place.”

This might be welcomed even by those without ethical reasons to wish for a drop in abortion numbers. Like in many parts of the world, France is facing a rapidly decreasing birthrate that will impact the country’s workforce and tax its social welfare system: 2023 saw the lowest number of births in the country since 1946.

Legendre sees a role for churches in combating a “culture of death” with a prophetic voice for a “culture of life.” She said this will happen “through the teaching of young people, through teaching adults with aging parents, and so on. There is room to maneuver in our communities in this area. And, in this sense, we can be models and witnesses within society of the culture of life.”

She added: “We have every reason to have a culture of life: We worship the living God, the God of life, the risen Christ! We have every reason to celebrate life, to savor life, to respect life: It’s up to us to be models and witnesses of life, from its beginning to its end.”

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

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