Opinion: French women got a wakeup call on abortion rights from their US sisters

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.

It’s a strange moment to be an American feminist who cares deeply about women’s rights beyond her own country’s borders.

Jill Filipovic - Courtesy Jill Filipovic
Jill Filipovic - Courtesy Jill Filipovic

On one hand, there is so much to be heartened by: expansions of women’s rights in much of the world, feminist protests galvanizing women across continents, abortion rights on the rise, necessary attention paid to the particular price paid by women in conflict. And then there is our own country, one of the very few where abortion rights have been radically scaled back rather than expanded, where anti-feminist movements are quickly racking up (often unpopular) wins and broadening their efforts to wind back women’s progress and where a large chunk of the electorate is eager to put a notoriously sexist man found liable for sexual abuse back into the highest office in the land.

The news that the French National Assembly has passed a bill that would enshrine abortion rights in the country’s constitution evokes mixed emotions. If the French bill is approved by the senate and then adopted, France will be the first country on earth to include the right to abortion in its constitution, a vanguard moment in feminist history and a potential model for other nations that want to protect women’s rights. But this hopefully forthcoming French feminist victory is borne from an American loss: The push to enshrine abortion rights in the French constitution came precisely because the US Supreme Court ruled that abortion is not a right guaranteed by ours.

“It was a wake-up call for everyone,” French Senator Mélanie Vogel told CNN in December. “We don’t want to wake up like American women… with this right being taken from us.”

Conservatives in France sing a very different tune than those in the US, arguing that a constitutional right to abortion is unnecessary because abortion is not a hotly contested issue in France. But French feminists know better: They see rising right-wing movements around the world and understand how quickly circumstances can change.

Just look at the US: Yes, abortion has been a hotly-contested issue ever since the Evangelical right pivoted from focusing on enforcing racial segregation to focusing on outlawing abortion and enforcing gender traditionalism, but abortion rights went before the Supreme Court many times over and Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision recognizing abortion as a fundamental right, was always upheld — until, after nearly 50 years, it wasn’t. And American abortion opponents haven’t stopped at a single Supreme Court victory. They are working hard to put former President Donald Trump back in office in the hope that he can set in motion an expansive plan to curtail abortion access nationwide.

The fact that abortion rights have expanded in many of the same places where human rights norms are being increasingly recognized and democratic governance has taken root is not a coincidence — and neither is the fact that the minority of countries in which abortion rights have been curtailed are also places where authoritarianism tends to be on the rise, human rights on the retreat and democracy in free fall. French feminists fighting for abortion rights are working to secure a necessary right for women’s freedom and bodily autonomy, but they’re also taking an important step to protect their nation’s democratic character and what will hopefully be its free, equal and rights-affirming future.

If only the US would do the same.

Unfortunately, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion rights would be all but impossible in America – not because voters wouldn’t support it, but because of the Republican stranglehold on so many state legislatures. The Biden administration has, over the years, made noises about codifying Roe v. Wade, but they currently lack the votes to do so, and still may not have them even if Biden wins in 2024.

The conservative-majority Supreme Court is set to hear another major abortion case this year, and another bad decision could make safe medication abortions even more difficult or impossible for women to get. Voters have consistently cast their ballots in favor of abortion rights when given the option, even in conservative states – and so the anti-abortion movement is now gunning to remove the issue from voters’ hands and simply keep abortion off the ballot.

Hopefully, French women, and so many others whose countries are actually progressing on women’s rights instead of backsliding, see an easy victory. Feminists the world over should be thrilled to see so many of our sisters standing up and so often winning (albeit almost always after excruciatingly long and arduous fights). But it’s not exactly thrilling to be the cautionary tale inspiring some of this advocacy. I’m glad French and other feminists are working overtime so that they don’t end up like American women. I just wish American women hadn’t ended up here, either.

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