In modern France, as in America, no issue arouses greater passions than abortion. In 1975, the health minister who championed a pioneering law legalizing abortion was shouted down as a "Nazi" by foes in Parliament--though she was a survivor of the Nazi death camps herself.
Nearly a quarter-century later, another storm is brewing over recommendations that the law be liberalized to bring France more into conformity with the legislation and practice of many of its Western European neighbors.
Plainclothes police are posted around the Strasbourg-area hospital that is the workplace of Dr. Israel Nisand, a gynecologist who is the author of a government-commissioned report urging changes in the law. Nisand has been getting death threats and anti-Semitic slurs by mail, and recently filed a criminal complaint.
He was inclined at first not to take the threats seriously, he said, but episodes of violence against some American doctors who perform abortions made him change his mind.
"What is happening in the United States leads us not to treat these people with kid gloves," Nisand said from Schiltigheim hospital, where he is in charge of gynecology and obstetrics.
After reviewing Nisand's report, Martine Aubry, the Socialist minister in charge of social services, said this month that French law may be changed to allow abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, in lieu of 10. Among other Western European countries, only Spain shares the 10-week limit, Aubry said.
Nisand said he found that 5,000 Frenchwomen leave their own country annually for abortions abroad, 80% of whom are 10 to 12 weeks pregnant. His report also specifically recommends that minors be allowed to terminate a pregnancy without first obtaining the permission of a parent. Aubry agrees.
"There is a fundamental contradiction in considering the minor who gives birth to be enough of an adult to have parental authority over her child but not enough to decide herself about VIP [voluntary interruption of pregnancy]," Aubry said.
Nisand's report has received the backing of a French gynecologists association and a family planning council. But it has ignited outrage among some opponents of abortion, including Droit de Naitre, or Right to Be Born, a group based in the Paris suburbs.
It is Right to Be Born that is now waging the mail-in protest campaign against Nisand, using a preprinted card that denounces abortion as "genocide." Earlier this week, Nisand said he had received 4,000 of the cards, which some senders used to add their own handwritten threats or religious slurs.
"There are no extremists in our group," Frederic de Chalabre of Right to Be Born has insisted. But one Paris newspaper reported that the group, founded in 1994, has links to a reactionary Roman Catholic movement known as Tradition Family Property, which a French parliamentary commission labeled a religious sect.
"What is at stake here is democracy," Nisand contended. "It bothers those people that the law relieves the distress of women and confers upon them freedom."
But other, more mainstream voices have been raised in opposition, including an umbrella group of Catholic family associations that objects to legal modifications "whose only effect can be an increase in the number of abortions."
Aubry has hurriedly made it known that there will be a full year for debating any changes and that the French legislature will not vote on any bill before autumn 2000.
"I'm not there to please these people or those but to try to remedy unfair situations," she said. "We can't sit idly by while minors are facing a pregnancy they don't want but that they don't dare admit to their parents."
Right to Be Born, in a statement, exulted that "the big push of the pro-abortion lobby has been stopped dead in its tracks."
Right-wing lawmaker Christine Boutin, who has taken a leading role in opposing plans by the Socialist-led government for a marriage-like contract for homosexuals, said what France needs is a "policy of welcoming life."