Archive: France protects abortion in constitution – The bicycle pump that ate Paris


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Today is International Women’s Day. On Monday, 4 March 2024, four days ago, French lawmakers approved a bill that will enshrine the right to an abortion in the Constitution of France in a joint session of Parliament at the Palace of Versailles. The move makes France the first country in the world to offer explicit protection for terminating a pregnancy in its basic law. How times have changed in a half century. David Robie recalls an article he filed for Australia’s Nation Review from Paris in 1974 while he was living there.

By David Robie

There was none of the sterile atmosphere that normally characterises usual surgeries. On the bed, covered with a crochet blanket, lay the patient, naked except for a bra. The doctor was in a checked shirt with rolled sleeves. A pretty nurse sat on the bed holding the girl’s hand.

And nearby were the surgical instruments — a bicycle pump, a plastic tube and a jar.

The scene was a modern apartment in the middle class 12th arrondissement quarter of Paris, one of the many “clinics” throughout France of the Liberation of Abortion and Contraception Movement (MLAC).

Staffed by doctors, medical students and other volunteers, clinics such as this counsel people every day in a country where abortion is still illegal and contraception has been discouraged. Since they first began to open 18 months ago, the clinics have also conducted thousands of do-it-yourself abortions using the Karman suction method involving a bicycle pump and an inverted valve.

This month the staid women’s magazine Marie Claire, a sister publication of Paris Match, revealed the activities of MLAC in an investigative report on abortion which has shocked much of France and led to the magazine being seized in Belgium and banned in Spain.

Maire Claire published a graphic series of photographs of a young woman being helped to give herself an abortion with a bicycle pump at one of the MLAC clinics. French medical authorities angrily protested.

The magazine’s editors argued that at a time when the government was preparing to liberalise abortion laws, the country should know the “full facts”.

Debating is due to start soon in the National Assembly on draft reforms — prepared by the Undersecretary for Women’s Affairs, Françoise Giroud — of the antiquated abortion and contraception laws which have not been altered since 1920.

MLAC staff encourage women to carry out their own abortion, under supervision, because they consider it less traumatic. But the staff generally show the patient a bottle containing the placenta sucked out of the womb to shock her into using contraception.

The method is claimed to be the most modern and safest, and is only painful for two or three seconds. Named after Karman, a Californian psychiatrist who picked up the idea during a visit to China, the method requires a widening of the uterus 10 times less than the conventional curettage. It has been in use in France only since 1972.

“The bicycle pump is not an improvisation, but a rational method,” says one MLAC clinic supervisor. “In England, at King’s College, which possesses one of the best gynecological-obstetrics services in the world, they prefer the bicycle pump to more costly electric ones.

Maire Claire also reported the activities of a typical GP practice carrying out abortions in the northern Paris suburb of Gennevilliers. Consisting of a team of three doctors, aged from 28 to 33, they charge 87 francs (about A$13); the patients are able to claim the money back from Social Security because they are listed on the records of having a smear test.

The magazine said hospitals were in chaos over policy towards abortions. Some hospitals would not carry out abortions at all, others only handled essential cases when the mother’s life was at stake, and in others blood was injected into the vagina to simulate an emergency case.

Only one hospital in France was carrying out abortions openly, the magazine said. This was Emile-Roux at Eaubinne, near Paris; 78 out of the staff of 90 in the general surgery ward decided in favour of abortions last May [1973], and the hospital then began giving them openly.

Abortion reform in France, although a belated result of the May 1968 riots, really gained momentum only in February 1973 when 331 doctors signed a public declaration that they would carry out abortions. None of the doctors were prosecuted. The MLAC was founded soon after.

This article, “The bicycle pump that ate Paris”, was first published by the Nation Review — “The Ferret”, in Melbourne, 25-31 October 1974, page 41.

David Robie
David Robie
Dr David Robie was previously founding director and professor of journalism at AUT’s Pacific Media Centre (PMC). He worked with postgraduate student journalists to edit Pacific Media Watch - a daily digital archive of dispatches about Pacific journalism and media, ethics and professionalism. The PMC also jointly published the high profile independent Pacific Scoop news website with industry partner, Scoop Media, and Asia Pacific Report, which David now edits independently in partnership with Evening Report: David is also the founding editor of Pacific Journalism Review (PJR).
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