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April 6, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – France has been hit harder than many countries by the coronavirus, with some 9,000 deaths directly or indirectly ascribed to COVID-19 to date and some 7,000 patients still in ICU while the nation remains in a complete lockdown, but its health minister is concerned about “feedback showing that there is an alarming decrease in abortion procedures.”

Olivier Véran, the Minister for Solidarities and Health, was asked April 1 in the French Senate to clarify whether measures would be taken to facilitate access to “voluntary interruption of pregnancy,” as it is called in the country.

“It is out of the question that the COVID-19 epidemic should limit the right to abortion in our country,” he told members of the National Assembly. “A number of measures are being assessed and will be implemented as soon as possible.”

“Firstly, medical abortions must be encouraged and made easier, while at the same time guaranteeing free choice,” added Véran. In France, women have a choice between surgical and chemical abortion, the latter now accounting for about two-thirds of  “terminations.”

Up to five weeks’ gestation, chemical abortions are completed at home after the woman has swallowed abortion pills in the presence of a doctor or midwife. Between five and seven weeks, the abortion must take place in a hospital environment. From seven to 12 weeks’ gestation, the legal limit for elective abortion, only surgical procedures are available.

Among the measures Véran offered to put in place was to allow women to resort to tele-consultations both for their first medical consultation before the abortion takes place and for the follow-up consultation once it has been completed. He also said he was “not opposed in principle” to the idea of allowing chemical abortions take place up to nine weeks’ gestation.

At a time when so many hospitals have reduced or cancelled surgery and other medical procedures because of the coronavirus epidemic, he also told the French Senate that he had already “asked all teams to maintain the availability of surgical abortion.” The procedure has been listed as making part of “emergency care” during the COVID-19 crisis.

In a statement published by the Health Ministry on April 3, some of these measures were implemented or announced.

According to the new guidelines, all three medical consultations will be able to take place online if the woman wishes and if the doctor considers it to be possible, allowing abortion pills to be swallowed at home.

France’s National Health Authority has been officially charged with assessing the possibility of allowing chemical abortions to take place outside of hospital, up to seven weeks’ gestation. 

Finally, Ministers are encouraging all private and general practitioners and midwives to join the effort to maintain availability of chemical abortions, and they have asked healthcare facilities to continue providing surgical abortions.

Pressure has been put on the government in order to go even further. On March 19, three days into the lockdown, Senator Laurence Rossignol reintroduced an amendment that would make elective abortion possible up to 14 weeks’ gestation rather than 12 under current law because of the coronavirus epidemic. Her identical proposition had been rejected last year, and the same thing happened this time as the government failed to support the measure.

Rossignol complained to the media that due to the crisis, a certain number of women are finding themselves beyond the time limit for legal abortion without the possibility of traveling to Spain or the Netherlands, where the procedure is performed up to 20-24 weeks. “What will they do now that the borders are closed?” she asked.

Last week, on March 31, more than 100 professional abortion providers who signed an op-ed in Le Monde complained that tele-consultations were illegal for abortions, that reorganisation in hospitals caused by the coronavirus was making it more difficult to attend to women “needing” surgical abortions, and that women exposed to violence in their homes were finding it more difficult to obtain an abortion and that the legal deadline should be longer.

While the deadline has yet to be extended, Véran did say before the Senate, “There exists a justification for medical interruption of pregnancy (abortions performed for ‘medical’ reasons beyond the 12 weeks’ gestation time limit) that is not concerned by the time-limit issue: in case of psychosocial distress, and the question is to know whether through a collegial decision, it can be considered that a young woman who could not go to a consultation in order to obtain an abortion in the ordinary conditions can be considered to be answering these conditions of psychosocial distress.”

In other words, women who would have wanted to obtain an abortion during the confinement period but were not able to do so for various reasons would see their request honored even beyond the legal time limit once the confinement is lifted.

So-called “medical abortions,” in case of danger to the life or health of the mother, a serious handicap or genetic default or unviabililty outside the womb as well as “psychosocial distress” are performed up to the time of birth under French law.

Under the new government directives, abortion has become even easier to obtain. The measures are temporary, including the possibility to use tele-consultations for the three compulsory medical consultations for a chemical abortion, which has officially been limited to May 31.

In Normandy, the head of a regional midwives’ association, Sylvie Mourtoux, told the press that she hoped that tele-consultations would remain legal for abortions: “We hope to be able to maintain this major step for our professional activity beyond that date.”