French lawmakers ban websites that spread ‘false information’ on abortion

French Senate

French Senate

French Senators on Thursday passed a bill to ban pro-life websites from spreading “false information” about abortion, following a heated debate with rightwing lawmakers who argued it would contravene freedom of expression.

The debate comes less than five months before France elects a new president, with the rightwing Les Républicains party candidate François Fillon, a staunch Catholic, tipped to win.

Fillon has said he is “personally” opposed to abortion, but that he will not try to overturn a landmark 1975 law legalising the practice.

The bill passed by senators on Wednesday will extend to the internet a 1993 law criminalising “interference” in abortions in the form of “false information”.

The original intent of the law was to prevent pro-life activists from physically blocking access to abortion clinics.

“Freedom of expression should not be confused with manipulating minds,” Socialist Family Minister Laurence Rossignol said as the debate kicked off last week.

The 1993 law needs to be adapted to “the digital reality”, Rossignol said. “Thirty years ago militants chained themselves to abortion clinics… today their successors are continuing this fight on the web.”

The bill, which now goes back to lower house of parliament for final approval, punishes attempts to indimidate women seeking an abortion by up to two years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros ($31,900).

‘Cultural climate’

Bruno Retailleau, a close ally of Fillon who heads the Républicains party group in the Senate, has blasted the bill as “totally against freedom of expression”.

He added that the bill went against the “spirit” of the 1975 law that legalised abortion, which called for women to be informed of alternatives.

Health Minister Marisol Touraine, for her part, denounced what she called a “cultural climate that tends to make women feel guilty” for seeking abortions.

The proposed law is aimed at “preventing these websites from disseminating disinformation,” Touraine said on French television.

“We have the right in France to be against abortion (and) the right to say you’re against abortion,” she said, while adding that the bill aims to prevent websites from intentionally misleading women in order to dissuade them from seeking abortions.