Inform, Entertain, Inspire
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Ceci n’est plus un cintre - Abortion as a Constitutional Right in France

“Ceci n’est plus un cintre” [“This is no longer a wire hanger”]
Anne Magnan-Park
“Ceci n’est plus un cintre” [“This is no longer a wire hanger”]

Anne Magnan-Park focuses on the right to “end pregnancy voluntarily” in France.

In her memoir entitled Happening [2], Nobel Prize laureate Annie Ernaux retraces her experience as a 23-year-old promising student. Her narrative focuses on the abortion she received in January 1964, eleven years before abortion became legal in France [3], and during which she almost lost her life. In her memoir, Ernaux draws meticulously from her journals to stay true to the details of her psychological and physical ordeals. She reflects that while authors would mention abortion in their novels, most skipped over the process of seeking a faiseuse d’anges (literally, an “angels maker”) and the procedure itself (30). This narrative void which, for Ernaux, spans from October 1963 to January 1964, is precisely what the author addresses within a specific historical and social context. As readers, we grapple with the painful fact that the very limited and potentially lethal options faced by the young Ernaux are largely dictated by her social class. Her more affluent counterparts, when they are not ushered discretely to foreign destinations where the law is more favorable, such as Sweden and later the United Kingdom, have access to networks of doctors who can perform the procedure safely for a large sum of money. As the young student wanders the streets alone, facing rejections from two doctors from whom she seeks help, Ernaux raises questions surrounding stigma as well as the ethics of the law: “you couldn’t tell whether abortion was banned because it was wrong or wrong because it was banned. People judged according to the law, they didn’t judge the law” (34). A reader may remember that the law of 1920, which prohibited contraception and criminalized abortion, was passed at a time when France was recovering from World War I and attempted to grow its population. In 1943, just twenty years before Ernaux sought to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, Marie-Louise Giraud and Désiré Pioge were the last individuals to be sentenced to death for abortion. During World War II under the Vichy regime, Giraud and Pioge were guillotined for performing abortions. In 1972, during the Bobigny abortion trial which paved the way for the 1975 Veil Act legalizing abortion, lawyer Gisèle Halimi, referring to the law which criminalized abortion, exclaimed: “This archaic law cannot survive.” Meanwhile, the courthouse heard the chants of the crowd outside: “We’ve all aborted. England for the rich, prison for the poor.” Halimi’s statement echoed that of Michèle Chevalier, one of the people on trial: “I am not guilty. Your law is.”

Throughout the book, Ernaux comments on her own writing as she makes her stance explicit: “(I realize this account may exasperate or repel some readers; it may also be branded as distasteful. I believe that any experience, whatever its nature, has the inalienable right to be chronicled. There is no such thing as a lesser truth)” (44). Ernaux walks us through the irony of being assisted by O, a bourgeois student whose values are diametrically opposed to hers, but in whom Ernaux confides. O acts as an “improvised midwife” who seeks help when Ernaux hemorrhages. Toward the end of Happening, Ernaux concludes: “I have finished putting into words what I consider to be an extreme human experience, bearing on life and death, time, law and taboo – an experience that sweeps through the body” (90).

The history of the legalization of abortion in France cannot be relayed here, but the death rate and the medical complications of women who terminated their pregnancies as portrayed in Happening were determining factors in making abortion both legal and free (4). And yet, today, factors such as geographical location can still limit access to a safe, legal, and free abortion due to the decline in the number of facilities providing abortion services. The recent Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in the United States has prompted France to protect its abortion rights by seeking to consecrate them in its constitution. A draft law is due to be debated at the National Assembly in two weeks (January 24th). Its current wording, referring to one’s “freedom” as opposed to one’s “right” to access abortion, is both disappointing and problematic for left-wing sympathizers. Some may legitimately see France’s current position as enviable, but I personally hope that party politics will give way to a true reproductive justice debate which acknowledges and addresses intersecting factors which still cause inequalities among people of reproductive age and capacity.

For Michiana Chronicles, this is Anne Magnan-Park.


  1. I.V.G.: Interruption Volontaire de la Grossesse, literally voluntary interruption of pregnancy.
  2. Annie Ernaux’s Happening was translated into English by Tanya Leslie for Seven Stories Press.The French original was published in 2000 under the title L’Évènement. It was turned into a film, also titled L’Évènement, directed by Audrey Diwan in 2021. It received, among other awards, the Golden Lion at the 78th Venice International Film Festival.
  3. Abortion was made temporarily legal with the Veil Act in 1975, though it was not made permanently legal until 1979.
  4. Abortion is legal until the 14th week of pregnancy. For more details, see the following link:

Song: Anne Sylvestre, “Non tu n’as pas de nom”

Anne is a literary translator focusing on Indigenous literatures of the Pacific. She has been writing for Michiana Chronicles since 2019.