In France, Where Abortion Is Safe, Legal And Taboo

Four decades after abortion became legal in France, too often women face moral judgment and physical pain, not to mention unsympathetic health care professionals.

In France, Where Abortion Is Safe, Legal And Taboo
Cécile Deffontaines

PARIS — Alice was 20 years old when she had an abortion. It was in 2008, in an ordinary town in southern France.

"I was crouching down on the ground, contorting myself with pain, my forehead against a chair," she recalls. "I was in so much pain that sweat was dripping from my hair. I stayed four to five hours like that, all alone in a waiting room. Not once did the nurse who gave me the abortion pill offer me a painkiller. I was treated like a dog. As if I were the worst person in the world, committing an abominable act."

Forty years after abortion was legalized in France via the "Veil Law," it's still uncommon for women to undergo the procedure without being judged, without suffering, without going through a nightmare. About 220,000 women resort to abortion every year in France. More than one in three women have an abortion sometime during their lives, a proportion that should make the procedure relatively common.

"It is still not considered a fully legitimate right," says Véronique Séhier, co-president of Planning Familial, an association fighting for abortion rights in France.

At most, women are afforded the right begrudgingly.

"We only have to listen to women," Simone Veil famously said at the French National Assembly in 1974. And if we do, we will hear about the sense of humiliation and shame, the feeling that they must "pay" for this hitch in their contraceptive process. Two-thirds of women who undergo abortion use contraceptives.

"I'm a child of 1968," explains Camille, a 39-year-old professor who had an abortion in 2000 at the age of 25. "I thought abortion became something normal. I was 15 days away from the maximum period 12 weeks or 14 weeks of amenorrhea when I realized it. It was a real struggle to get the appointments. They offered them for a month later, even though I explained my situation."

Just to receive an ultrasound so that the pregnancy could be dated, she had to call a dozen different clinics, she says. "And it went terribly. When the sonographer understood I came for an abortion, his expression changed. He turned the sound of the monitor, which was resonating in the room, to full volume. He said, "See, he's fine. His heart is beating perfectly." I was deeply shocked by his nastiness. What did he know about my situation? I left completely stunned."

Too much waiting, not enough empathy

Over the past 10 years, 130 abortion clinics have shut down in France. And reorganization of public hospitals has limited the procedure to certain clinics, congesting services and extending waiting periods.

"There are strong inequalities across the country," Séhier explains. "Some establishments are on a just-in-time basis. Others are open for abortions only twice per week."

Around Paris, women have it relatively well, but near Nantes, in western France, it's another story.

"When you have to wait up to five weeks for an abortion, you can't live your decision serenely," says Françoise Laurant of the High Council for Equality Between Men and Women.

That's what happened to Nathalie, a 38-year-old farmer, in early 2013. She started the process after a month of pregnancy and could only abort up to two and a half months. "They left me pregnant, event though I was very, very depressed and ill," she says.

Nathalie wasn't even able to choose the abortion method, as the law allows. She wanted general anesthesia, but instead she was given only local anesthesia.

"I was lying in the lithotomy position," she recalls. "The surgeon arrived, angry. No "hello." I didn't feel the anesthesia injection or the warmth of the product. And suddenly, the horrible pain. I felt it scraping my uterus. I was crying. The surgeon had to have noticed it. She seemed annoyed during the whole procedure, sighing, complaining because my "cervix was too tight," as if I could do anything about it! I don't think the anesthesia worked correctly. It lasted 45 minutes, twice the normal amount of time. She left without a "goodbye," not a sign of empathy. I never saw her face. She only talked to my back. As if I weren't a person."

Medical care

Far beyond the technical obstacles many patients encounter, they complain that the inappropriate attitudes hurt them most. "Most people still think women should not find themselves in this situation and that there are too many abortions," explains Nathalie Bajos, a sociologist specializing in sexuality at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research.

"We have difficulty accepting that abortion goes hand in hand with contraception, as a whole allowing women to control their fertility — because there will always be contraception failures," she says. "Reproaching women for resorting to abortion is in fact reproaching them for having a sexuality that does not aim to be reproductive."

Michel Teboul, head of abortion services at the Port-Royal Hospital in Paris, estimates that a woman using oral birth control between the ages of 15 and 49 will take about 8,000 pills and will have an average of two full-term pregnancies. "So it's a miracle that women don't have more unwanted pregnancies," he says. "This proves they are very careful."

As proof that it's possible to improve conditions, motivated teams have taken initiative to provide better care for these women — like in Armentières, in northern France. This is where Alice went for a second abortion in 2012, even though she had taken the morning-after pill.

After the abortion, a gynecologist told her more about contraception, and she received a more secure implant.

"I had a room and was given a powerful painkiller along with the tablet," Alice recalls. "I didn't suffer at all, and the nurses were extremely kind. This time, I was receiving medical care. My problem was simply being resolved."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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