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France moves to ban misleading anti-abortion websites

Supporters say the law would stop the spread of ‘misinformation,’ but opponents say it violates free speech

Kent Wang / Flickr

The French National Assembly this week moved to criminalize websites that spread “misinformation” about abortions and spread pro-life propaganda. The law, approved on Thursday, would punish offenders with up to two years in prison and a €30,000 fine. It will now move on to the Senate, The Guardian reports.

Supporters say the bill would target sites that masquerade as neutral sources of information on abortion, but are in fact operated by advocacy groups that seek to manipulate and pressure women into not terminating pregnancies. The proposal has drawn criticism from right-wing politicians and Catholic organizations, who say it infringes on free speech.

A law passed in 1993 makes it a crime to intimidate or pressure women into not having abortions. The law was originally passed to prevent anti-abortion activists from blocking access to abortion clinics, following a wave of demonstrations during the 1980s. The proposal passed in the lower house this week would extend that law to websites that “exert psychological or moral pressure” on women who are seeking information about abortions.

"Thirty years ago, militants chained themselves to abortion clinics," Laurence Rossignol, the socialist family minister, said during debate this week. "Today, their successors are continuing this fight on the web."

Rossignol has identified several sites — ivg.net, sosgrossesse.net, and sosbebe.org — as examples of misleading and manipulative platforms that seek to shame women into not terminating pregnancies. Ivg.net portrays itself as a neutral platform to help women decide whether to have an abortion or not, promising “complete information” and offering a free helpline number. But as Le Monde reports, the site emphasizes the negative psychological and physical impacts that abortions can have on women, and prominently features harrowing testimonies. Ivg.net also is the first result on Google France searches for “IVG” — the French acronym for abortions — ahead of the health ministry’s official site for information.

The proposed law has drawn criticism from conservative politicians and Catholic groups who see it as a violation of free speech. Last week, Catholic Archbishop Georges Pontier published a letter to President François Hollande in which he said that the bill “questions the foundations of our freedoms and especially the freedom of expression.” Bruno Retailleau, a senator from the center-right republican party, said the bill would limit the information about “alternatives” to abortion.

But Rossignol contested those arguments during debate this week, saying: “Freedom of expression should not be confused with manipulating minds.”

The Senate will open debate on the bill on December 7th.