1972: the Bobigny trials

Gisèle Halimi’s strategy

Bobigny’s second trial, that of Marie-Claire’s mother, her two colleagues and the “abortionist” Micheline Bambuck, will prove to be truly decisive in the fight to change the legislation. While, in October, the trial of Marie-Claire was judged behind closed doors, preventing media coverage of the debates, that of Michèle Chevalier and her “accomplices” is on the contrary an opportunity for Gisèle Halimi to give a great brought to the event: it will not only be a question for her of defending the accused, but also and above all of indicting the repressive law, of publicly demonstrating its obsolete nature.

For Me Halimi, the trial of Michèle Chevalier and the three other women must be a political trial, the stakes of which go beyond the immediate fate of the accused, “because the accused become accusers, they decide to make the court a forum and that, beyond the judges, it is to public opinion as a whole that they are addressing” (Gisèle Halimi, op. cit.). The lawyer also plans to call, during the second Bobigny trial, major witnesses – professors of medicine, philosophers, politicians… – who have no direct link with the case in trial, but who will publicly denounce at the bar the iniquity of the law repressing abortion.

Having come to present this strategy on November 4, 1972 during a joint meeting of Choisir la cause des femmes and the MLF, Gisèle Halimi came up against the opposition of a large part of feminist activists, who were very hostile to the use of “big witnesses”. Indeed, it is mainly well-known men that the lawyer wishes to scroll to the bar: however, from the point of view of the MLF, Bobigny must remain a women’s affair. Also the male luminaries that Gisèle Halimi has solicited are they mercilessly rejected by the MLF, which would like to see testify only anonymous women coming to affirm before the judges that they have had an abortion and that they are proud of it.

The MLF activists also reject the idea that the drama of Marie-Claire is above all a social drama, the question of abortion transcending, according to them, social belonging: “Bourgeoises and proletarians, we have in common above all the condition of women”, they reaffirm again, several months after Bobigny, in the main organ of the MLF (The rag is burning, March 2, 1973). We thus see confronting on the occasion of the Bobigny trial those for whom the question of abortion and its repression reveals deep social inequalities between women, “and those who believe, on the contrary, that abortion is the problem of all women, regardless of their social background” (Jean-Yves Le Naour and Catherine Valenti, op. cit.).

Gisèle Halimi decides to ignore the hostility of the MLF and maintains her strategy : the trial of Michèle Chevalier and her co-defendants will indeed be a political trial, aimed at challenging the legislation in place.

The trial of repressive law

On the morning of November 8, 1972, when the second Bobigny trial opened, the courtroom was packed: this time, in fact, the proceedings did not take place behind closed doors, and feminist activists were present in many in the courtroom. It is first of all the four accused who successively take the floor: if the three magistrates who sit that day were expecting a session of repentance and self-flagellation, none of the four women regrets the part they took in the abortion of Marie-Claire. Even Lucette Duboucheix, one of Michèle Chevalier’s colleagues, despite being a fervent Catholic and morally hostile to abortion, affirms that it is up to the woman alone to decide whether or not to have an abortion, and that the repressive law in force must therefore be reformed. “We don’t put a law on trial!” exclaims the president of the court; “Me, personally, I will do it”, immediately replies Me Halimi (quoted in Catherine Valenti, op. cit.).

It is however with the hearing of major witnesses that the court is truly transformed into a political forum, to the chagrin of the president who tries in vain to recall that, according to the Code of Criminal Procedure, only witnesses having a direct link with the accused or the civil parties are normally authorized to testify. Gisèle Halimi summoned to the bar two Nobel Prize winners in physiology or medicine, Jacques Monod and François Jacob, politicians like Michel Rocard, but also Simone de Beauvoir, the actresses Delphine Seyrig and Françoise Fabian, as well as Simone Iff, president of Planning family. Founded in 1956, Happy Maternity, which in 1960 became the French Movement for Family Planning, first promoted contraception as a tool in the fight against clandestine abortion. In the early 1970s, however, more and more voices were raised within the association to denounce the repression of abortion. All the witnesses present in Bobigny reaffirm their condemnation of the legislation in place, and urge the public authorities to take their responsibilities by authorizing women’s access to termination of pregnancy.

The most striking testimony is undoubtedly that of the doctor Paul Milliez: a practicing Catholic, hostile to abortion in a personal capacity, Professor Milliez nevertheless agreed to come and testify in Bobigny in favor of the defendants, affirming at the bar that if Marie- Claire had come to ask him, he would not have hesitated to help her have an abortion, as the repressive law in force seems to him unjust (Paul Milliez, Doctor of Freedom, Seuil, 1980). Professor Milliez is quite representative of those doctors who, while remaining opposed in principle to the termination of pregnancy, “agree to compromise with their conscience when they find themselves confronted with a situation of distress” (Yvonne Knibiehler and Catherine Fouquet, The woman and the doctors, Hatchet, 1983). The trial ends with the indictment of the public prosecutor, and the arguments of the lawyers. Me Halimi focuses his defense on the denunciation of the law: more than on the fate of the four accused, it is on the repressive law that the magistrates have to decide. It is the general release that they must pronounce, according to the lawyer, to demonstrate the lapse of the law in force.

The judgment of Bobigny’s second trial was deliberated on the following November 22: Micheline Bambuck was sentenced to one year in prison, Lucette Duboucheix and Renée Sausset were released, Michèle Chevalier was ordered to pay a suspended fine of 500 francs (Association Picking out, Abortion, a law on trial: the Bobigny case, Gallimard, 1972). Beyond the leniency of the verdict, Gisèle Halimi succeeded in putting the authorities against the wall: after a disappointing first bill presented by the Gaullist government of Pierre Messmer in 1973, it was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who got down to reform after his election as President of the Republic in 1974. Simone Veil, Minister of Health, prepared the bill and brought it before the National Assembly. After a heated debate in Parliament at the end of November 1974, the Veil law who authorizes abortion is promulgated on January 17, 1975 and appears the next day in the Official Journal. It is the culmination of a long battle of which the Bobigny trial was one of the most important milestones.

For further:

  • Association Choose, Abortion, a law on trial: the Bobigny caseGallimard, 1972.
  • Gisele Halimi, The cause of womenGrasset, 1973.
  • Jean-Yves Le Naour and Catherine Valenti, History of abortion, 19th-20th centuryThreshold, 2003.
  • Bibia Pavard, If I want, when I want: contraception and abortion in French society1956-1979, Rennes University Press, 2012.
  • Catherine Valentine, Bobigny, the abortion trialLarousse, 2010.

1972: the Bobigny trials