The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France’s Roe v. Wade was the trial of a 16-year-old girl

Protesters from the French Women's Liberation Movement confront security forces in Paris on Nov. 8, 1972, during the Chevalier trial. (AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

In Ireland, it is 2018. In the United States, it is 1973. In France, the sacred date for abortion rights advocates is 1972, the year of the “Bobigny trial” that helped decriminalize abortion in the country, three months before the Roe v. Wade ruling.

At the center of the trial, which captivated the French public, was Marie-Claire Chevalier, a 16-year-old girl who became pregnant when she was raped by a classmate. Marie-Claire came from a working-class family in north-central France. The young man who had raped her dealt in petty crime, and — with shocking success — turned her in to the police (for having an abortion) so he could escape charges for stealing a car.

Marie-Claire was tried in the Paris suburb of Bobigny, alongside her single-parent mother, Michèle, who’d helped her obtain an abortion, and three other female accomplices, including the abortionist.

Marie-Claire Chevalier, minor at center of landmark French abortion case, dies at 66

But the most dynamic figure in the drama was Gisèle Halimi, a French-Tunisian lawyer, activist, writer and well-known feminist who agreed to represent Marie-Claire and her co-defendants.

Halimi, born in 1927 in Tunis, moved to Paris in the mid-1950s and gained fame by standing alongside Jean-Paul Sartre in favor of Algerian independence from France and against the use of torture by its military.

In the early 1970s, in the ferment of feminism’s “second wave,” most of Halimi’s energy turned toward fighting the criminalization of abortion, which in 1955 had been declared legal only in strict medical circumstances. That regulation followed a law from 1920, which, seeking to rebuild the population after the immense losses of the First World War, had banned all voluntary terminations and contraception in France. French women who illegally aborted (an estimated minimum of 300,000 of them every year) could expect punishment of up to two years in prison, and their abortionists up to a decade.

In 1971, together with the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, Halimi published the “Manifesto of the 343,” signed by 343 prominent women (including film stars Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve), who declared publicly that they’d had illegal abortions.

In taking on Marie-Claire’s case, Halimi demonstrated her belief in reproductive rights for a wider range of women, not only the rich and famous.

By soliciting Halimi to represent them, Michèle and Marie-Claire Chevalier allowed their ordeal to be politicized and to become a symbolic moment for women’s rights. Rather than stick to the details of Marie-Claire’s case, Halimi chose to target the 1920 law that made a teenage rape victim a criminal, and in doing so turn her client’s misfortune into a groundbreaking legal precedent.

The witnesses called to testify on behalf of the five women were not relatives of the defendants, but field experts from the French equivalent of Planned Parenthood, as well as politicians, comedians, intellectuals and even two Nobel Prize laureates in medicine, Jacques Monod and François Jacob. This unusual, risky tactic showed the extent to which Halimi sought to use the trial as a landmark for feminist politics. It allowed for a comprehensive defense of abortion rights, with insights ranging from physiology to philosophy.

Halimi stated in her closing argument to the all-male jury, “Half of humanity […] shall no longer accept the perpetuation of this oppression.” Her words helped convince the jurors to defy the letter of the law and award acquittals to Marie-Claire and two of her accomplices. (Her mother, Michèle, received only a symbolic fine that she never had to pay, and the abortionist a suspended one-year prison sentence.)

Marie-Claire’s trial marked a shift in policy and public opinion, as the ruling flouted the 1920 law for the first time. The move did not go unnoticed by legislators, who were already under escalating public pressure to decriminalize voluntary terminations. In February 1973, 331 French doctors also signed a petition stating they had performed illegal abortions.

Lessons from Poland, the other developed country curtailing abortion rights

In 1974, newly elected liberal President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing requested that the Minister of Health, Simone Veil, settle this growing unrest. Eight years after the enactment of a law that allowed access to contraception, the 1975 Veil Law fully legalized voluntary abortions in France, after lengthy parliamentary debate (and a trial period that lasted until 1979).

Halimi heralded Marie-Claire’s abortion as a “citizen act of civil disobedience.” Yet it had been emotionally punishing and physically traumatic for the teenager. Performed with an electric cable, the clandestine procedure gave her sepsis, requiring hospitalization and nearly killing her.

Marie-Claire suffered throughout the Bobigny trial, during which her claims were often questioned, and even attempted suicide in the aftermath. On Halimi’s advice, she eventually enrolled in a remote boarding school to escape the media furor, yet discussion of the trial remained ubiquitous.

Halimi died in 2020, just a few weeks before the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, arguably her close American counterpart. Her admirers are pushing for her to enter the famous Pantheon, where the most illustrious figures of the French Republic are buried.

In time, Marie-Claire — who constantly sought anonymity and often asked to go by the pseudonym “Catherine” — found work as a nurse’s assistant and caregiver near her hometown in Orléans. She gave birth to a daughter in 1988 and later became a grandmother. She lived a simple life, surrounded by family and pets, and died from brain cancer in January at age 66.

According to her longtime partner, Marie-Claire stayed in friendly contact with Halimi for the rest of her life. Upon her death, President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte sent flowers to the funeral, a gesture confirming Marie-Claire’s critical role in advancing reproductive rights in France.

Pierre-Yves Anglès is director of studies at Paris Sciences et Lettres University (PSL University) and a lecturer in English and French-American cultural history of the 1960s. Dr. Alice Blackhurst is a writer and a professor of French literature at St John’s College, University of Oxford.