(Update: The French National Assembly on Thursday adopted the controversial bill, with the support of leftists and a majority of centrists, while right wing lawmakers opposed it. The measure now goes to the Senate. Family Minister Laurence Rossignol argued during the debate that “freedom of expression should not be confused with manipulating minds.”)
(CNSNews.com) – French lawmakers on Thursday will debate and vote on a Socialist government-backed draft law that could criminalize online pro-life advocacy. The legislation would extend the ambit of already-illegal “interference” in abortion to cover digital media.
Any website carrying material that is deemed to be “deliberately misleading, intimidating and/or exerting psychological or moral pressure” aimed at persuading a mother not to abort her child could face criminal charges, with punishments of two years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros ($31,800).
A Catholic archbishop has called the move “a very serious attack on the principles of democracy.”
Supporters, including Families Minister Laurence Rossignol, say the goal is to prevent the dissemination of inaccurate or biased information, but critics view the wording as vague and dangerous.
“One could hardly be vaguer in the description,” argues Gregor Puppinck, director of the European Centre for Law and Justice (ECLJ) – an international affiliate of the Virginia Beach-based American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) – which opposes the initiative.
“It is difficult to understand how the mere consulting of a website information page could obstruct the practice of an abortion or the information about it,” he said in an article Wednesday. “This vague crime is opened to the most extensive interpretations.”
Puppinck says that that clearly violates a French Constitutional Council ruling that legislation must define crimes “in terms precise and clear enough to exclude arbitrary decisions.”
France legalized abortion on demand until the end of the 12th week of pregnancy – or what is known officially as “voluntary interruption of pregnancy” (L’interruption volontaire de grossesse or IVG) – in 1975.
In 1993 another law was passed, creating the offense of hindering or interfering in an abortion – aimed at preventing pro-life activists from physically blocking access to, or occupying or otherwise targeting abortion facilities.
The law was later broadened to cover “moral and psychological pressure” aimed at dissuading abortion, and the legislation now under consideration seeks to widen that further into the digital realm.
In the new law’s crosshairs are websites like IVG.net, which offers counselling, practical support, and resources that include information about medical and psychological risks entailed in having an abortion.
The French Ministry of Social Affairs and Health’s official abortion website warns women about sites of that nature.
“Some websites that you find via search engines will tell you that they offer neutral and medical information but are actually edited by anti-abortion activists,” it says.
“They are sometimes hard to recognize but beware systematically sites and hotlines devoting a large part of their content to motherhood and supposed complications and injuries from abortion.”
The government site instead recommends a handful of – hardly neutral – websites, including that of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s French affiliate, Planning Familial, one run by a national association of abortion clinics, and a feminist blog that includes a searchable database of abortion clinics across France.
A posting published on the IVG.net website rejected the notion that it would deliberately mislead by offering disinformation.
“Our information and prevention efforts for women cannot be disparaged so rudely,” it said, protesting against what it called a “scandalous attempt to muzzle us and stigmatize us by undermining our moral integrity.”
Going further, IVG.net identified what it called “eight lies” on the government website, such as the assertion that there are no post-abortion psychological consequences.
‘Real existential distress’
In a recent letter to President Francois Hollande, made public on Monday, the president of the French conference of Catholic bishops urging him against allowing the measure to be put in place.
Abortion, wrote Archbishop Georges Pontier, “whether one likes it or not, remains a serious act that profoundly interrogates the conscience.”
“In difficult situations, many women are reluctant to keep the child they bear. They feel the need to talk about it, to seek advice. Some, sometimes very young, experience a real existential distress in the face of this dramatic choice, which will mark their whole life.”
Pontier said many women visit websites that offer a listening ear to those who are “hesitant or distressed about the possible choice of abortion.”
While some may go ahead with the abortion, others eventually decide to keep their child. That “diversity of expression and behavior,” he said, was made possible by the “space of liberty” offered by the websites concerned.
Pontier said the bill to be debated on Thursday “calls into question the foundations of our freedoms and especially the freedom of expression.”
“Should we necessarily exclude any alternative to abortion to be considered an honest citizen?” he asked Hollande. “Can the slightest encouragement to keep one’s child qualify as ‘psychological and moral pressure’?”
The archbishop argued that limiting free expression in a way that moreover impacts freedom of conscience “seems to me to be a very serious attack on the principles of democracy.”
In other recent abortion-related developments in France, judicial authorities recently ruled that a video featuring children with Down syndrome could not be broadcast on public television on the grounds that the children’s smiles may “disturb” women who have had abortions.
Earlier this year, a mandatory one-week waiting period before abortion was abolished.
France has long had liberal abortion policies, In 1988 it became the first country to introduce the abortion pill RU-486 (mifepristone), and in 2012 – in line with a Hollande campaign pledge – parliament voted to reimburse the full cost of abortions, a measure that came into force the following year.