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FRANCE: Emotional Victory

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Even a Chamber accustomed to emotional oratory had rarely heard such rhetoric. Former Conservative Justice Minister Jean Foyer warned the French National Assembly of “the bodies of children piling up in slaughterhouses.”

One right-wing Deputy played a tape recording that sounded like a galloping horse and then cried to the silent Chamber: “You are listening to the heartbeat of a fetus of eight weeks and two days.”

Outside, members of the Laissez-les Vivre (Let Them Live) anti-abortion group paraded past the Assembly, praying aloud. The Vatican issued a statement condemning all legislation that would permit abortion. This so outraged the liberal-Catholic Le Monde that the paper ran a front-page editorial denouncing “this interference in the internal affairs of a country where the church and state have been separated for 71 years.”

France’s anti-abortion law dates from 1920, when officials were trying to compensate for the slaughter of World War I. It imposed severe fines and prison sentences on anyone who administered or received an abortion. In recent years, however, the number of illegal abortions climbed to an estimated half a million a year, and deaths from bungled abortions rose to an estimated 500.

Controlled Passion. It was this widespread flouting of the 1920 law that prompted the government to ask permission for abortion during the first ten weeks of pregnancy. President Valery Giscard d’Estaing entrusted the bill to Health Minister Simone Veil, 47, mother of three. She argued the case with intelligence and controlled passion. Only once did she lose her composure—when a centrist Deputy shouted, “Madame Minister, do you want to send children to the ovens?” Mme. Veil, a survivor of Auschwitz who saw her parents and brother perish in the ovens of World War II, scribbled a note of protest to the Deputy: “I cannot accept such statements in view of my past, with which, perhaps, you are not acquainted.”

In the end, the Assembly vote provided a surprisingly large victory—284 to 189 for abortion—chiefly because the United Left opposition for the first time in memory voted solidly with the government. Senate approval is expected shortly. French public opinion, which a recent poll showed was 73% proabortion, counted it a victory for Giscard’s beleaguered government—and also for the women of France.

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