The French parliament has begun debating a bill which would stop pro-life advocates from spreading untruthful information about abortion online and intimidating women.
The planned bill would extend the scope of a 1993 law, which criminalises "false information" over abortions, to digital media.
The original intent of the law was to prevent pro-life activists from physically blocking access to abortion clinics. The new bill will extend such "interference" in abortions to pro-lifers falsifying information in cyberspace, in order to impede terminations.
The bill is tipped to win, though right-wing lawmakers argue it would compromise freedom of expression.
Freedom vs. manipulation
"Freedom of expression should not be confused with manipulating minds," Socialist family minister Laurence Rossignol proclaimed as the debate kicked off.
She said the 1993 law, which is punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros, needs to be adapted to "the digital reality".
"Thirty years ago militants chained themselves to abortion clinics," he said, "today their successors are continuing this fight on the web."
Under the proposed law, any website carrying material 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.
Rossignol, told parliament that the government was not seeking to clamp down on anti-abortion opinion in general, but on sites that she said deliberately hid their true nature and tried to manipulate women with an “insidious” pressure.
The debate comes several months before France elects a new leader in next April’s presidential elections. Conservative Republican party candidate and staunch Catholic Francois Fillon, says he is personally opposed to abortion, but will not try to overturn the law if it goes through.
Bruno Retailleau, who heads the Republicans party group in the Senate, says the bill "is totally against freedom of expression." Speaking on radio, he claimed the bill went against the "spirit" of the 1975 law legalizing abortion, which called for women to be informed of alternatives.
Health Minister, Marisol Touraine, meanwhile has 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," in order to dissuade women from seeking abortions she said.
"We have the right in France to be against abortion, and the right to say you're against abortion."
Under the 1975 French law, abortion is legal for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, compared to 24 weeks in Britain.
In a previous landmark case in August 2014, a new law abolished the need for French women to prove they were “in a situation of distress” before an abortion. That and the stipulation that no questions were to be asked of them were part of a bid to increase gender equality in the country.