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The Law: L’ Affaire Marie-Claire

3 minute read

Mme. Michele Chevalier, a $300-a-month subway worker in Paris, was deserted 15 years ago and left with three young girls to raise. When her unmarried 16-year-old daughter Marie-Claire became pregnant, Mme. Chevalier resolved that an abortion was essential. Neither she nor her own mother had been married, said Mme. Chevalier, and she had no desire to force Marie-Claire “to relive my martyrdom.”

French doctors willing to perform the illegal operation commonly charge $900 or more; a trip to London or Geneva for a legal abortion would cost at least $600. Two friends sent Mme. Chevalier to an office secretary who moonlighted as an “angel maker,” as the French call an abortionist. Although the secretary charged only $300, she did the job so badly that Marie-Claire hemorrhaged and was taken to a hospital.

The hospital said nothing to the authorities, but Marie-Claire’s 19-year-old seducer—whose own mother described him as “not very attractive.” and really interested only in motorcycles—said all too much. Arrested on a theft charge, he started talking about Marie-Claire. The authorities indicted her, her mother, the two friends and the angel maker. All France settled back to cluck over the trial.

No Other Choice. Women’s Liberation and population-control groups marched outside the courtroom in the suburb of Bobigny until police broke up the demonstrations with nightsticks. The court acquitted Marie-Claire because she had been subjected to such “moral, social and material pressures” that she had no other choice. But the authorities continued the prosecution of the angel maker and of the other women as accomplices. The defense responded by attacking France’s anti-abortion law, which forbids the operation except to save a woman’s life. Nobel-prizewinning Biochemist Jacques Monod testified that, in his opinion, a fetus only a few weeks old could not be considered a “human being.” Author Simone de Beauvoir denounced the law as an oppression of women, while Actresses Françoise Fabian and Delphine Seyrig said that they were equally guilty, since they too had had abortions.

Dr. Paul Milliez, dean of a Paris teaching hospital, a Catholic and father of six, testified that he would have performed Marie-Claire’s abortion and that he had done so in a few other cases. Though he had immunity from criminal prosecution as a witness, he was quickly summoned for rebuke by Minister of Health Jean Foyer. When Milliez pointed out that wealthy women can easily get abortions, Foyer told him that “this was no reason why the vices of the rich should be made equally possible for the poor.”

Last week the judge found Mme. Chevalier and the abortionist guilty but acquitted the intermediaries. His sentences were conspicuously light—a suspended 500 franc ($100) fine for Mme. Chevalier, a suspended one-year jail term for the abortionist. That ended the case, but the battle over the abortion law was not likely to fade away.


Nor has it in the U.S. Last week the California Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote, ruled the state’s law unconstitutionally vague insofar as it allowed abortions only when the mother’s physical or mental health was “gravely” impaired. That means, practically speaking, that Californians can now get hospital abortions on demand and continues a legal trend against abortion bans.

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