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Abortion in France: Private Struggles and Public Debates, 1920-1980


From 1970 to 1975 French feminists led a successful pro-abortion movement in France. This movement transformed the way French men and women understood sex and sexuality and ultimately separated reproduction from sexuality. Despite internal divisions, feminists effectively organized and launched a political and social campaign that led to more open discussion about contraception, sex, and sexuality. In 1920 a law was passed with pronatalist support, making abortion and most forms of contraception illegal (condoms being the sole exception). This was a significant incursion into the private lives of individuals and a repressive regulation of women’s bodies but was made possible by the huge number of male losses after WWI that intensified fears of depopulations national strength. In the 1960s and 1970s feminists organized to challenge this law and in 1965 successfully lobbied for the legalization of contraception, including “the pill.” In other Western countries, such as Great Britain and the United States, historians usually attribute the cause of the sexual revolution to the contraception campaign of feminists and the widespread use of oral contraceptives. The situation in France was more complicated, however, because the contraception movement adopted a more family oriented tone and rhetoric. In addition, the legalization of contraceptive devices did not lead to a widespread availability. Some doctors were reluctant to prescribe hormonal birth control to anyone, especially unmarried women, for fear of promoting promiscuity. My research suggests that the key turning point for the separation between sex and reproduction was in fact the pro-abortion movement of the 1970s. Radical feminists of the period reflected the view that women’s role in society was primarily that of motherhood. Moreover, they spearheaded a movement that made reproductive rights central to female autonomy. This dissertation analyses the public debates that feminists orchestrated around the issue of abortion, which led to an increased awareness of new forms of contraception and made safe, medical abortion a reality for all French women regardless of class. It also focuses on women’s testimonies as central to the abortion movement.

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