Les Lilas, and women everywhere, are under attack

In France, women’s health and autonomy are under attack. When Francois Hollande ran for office, he made great promises. He promised that the maternity hospital “Les Lilas,” would not close down after having been the target of the conservative financial restructuration. Now he’s backtracking, and women’s reproductive rights are likely to be compromised.

The maternity hospital “Les Lilas” is located in a diverse area in the North of Paris. Les Lilas was built in 1964 with the feminist agenda to serve women’s needs. A privately run not-for-profit hospital, Les Lilas serves and participates in the public health care system. Les Lilas has historically been the symbol of women’s struggles for reproductive rights.

Today, the team of medical staff offers, with equal enthusiasm, obstetrical, gynecololical and abortion services to all women regardless of their social status or ethnicity. Their approach is integrative, making women’s needs and desire a priority. The feminist and militant aspect of the care they deliver departs from the current trend of cutting public services, including health care.

During the Sarkozy years the idea of profitability was extended to medical care. This was new for the French health care system. Sarkozy’s administration introduced a tariff arrangement that relegated care behind accounting. Now, President Hollande, having forgotten promises to save Les Lilas, has submitted the hospital to the same neoliberal profit motive.

Les Lilas needed funds for necessary renovations. These renovations were delayed making the hospital more dependent on credit for financing. Then, a tariff system was implemented devaluating abortion, which is a great part of its activity. Basically, the tariff devalued all health care services offered to women. This conjunction of devaluations typifies how women’s lives are undervalued in general.

Then, more regulations came to unfairly impose medical services upon Les Lilas, which forced the maternity hospital to invest money it did not have. These measures increased the hospital’s debt.

Across France, these conditionalities have forced many maternities to regroup, turning hospitals into “usines a bébés,” or baby factories.

When Les Lilas first needed some renovations, it had no debt. In fact, it was financially stable and had agreements to secure the future. With a debt forced upon it, the services provided to women are only measured in financial terms. With that shift, the hospital loses value.

The community, women and men, have joined together to counter this evolution. A collective committee has been formed; the staff of Les Lilas has been active using many media to show what this struggle means. Demonstrations have been organized with the support of many feminist and political groups. The last demonstration gathered 3000 people.

Isabelle Louis, of the French Movement for Family Planning and a member of the collective committee, told me that the negotiations with the regional health authority were difficult. Although the fund for renovations had been promised, the health authority now argues that running a deficit makes the delivery of that fund impossible. They use a new language of neoliberal accounting to confuse negotiations. The people used to be the actors and now they have become the developers. Isabelle Louis remarked how this neoliberal economic language has negated the social. This language talks of indicators of success, progress, and realization to respond to deficit with efficiency. However, this language has no term to analyze the health and well-being of the women who rely on “Les Lilas.”

Isabelle met with socialist Claude Evin, former minister of health and now general director of the regional health agency. He admitted that his obsession is to build more retirement medical homes than maternity hospitals. Of course, retirement facilities, unlike maternity hospitals, are part of a great market open to private investments. Isabelle has found the solution, “Let’s deliver babies in retirement medical centers!”

This tale is exemplary of the massive undertaking of neoliberal ideology on public systems. Women are under attack. In France, the progressive health care system and the reproductive health policies are threatened. France today, the United States yesterday, tomorrow … ? All of us, everywhere, need to pay attention to these signs.


(Photo Credit: La Maternité des Lilas Vivra)

A right is a right: women have the right to contraception and abortion

The role of a government is to inform the population of its rights said Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s Minister of Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, to a gathering at the Planning Familial center in Paris. Vallaud-Belkacem was there to unveil the new government information website on abortion. Since the passage of the Simone Veil bill in 1975, abortion has been a right in France.

Nonetheless, many in France, noting the shattering of reproductive rights in many countries throughout the world, don’t want to take any risk. Without much increase in their numbers, the anti IVG (anti abortion), as they are called in France, has managed to occupy a disproportionately large chunk of cyber space, by using deceptive sites that simulate abortion right sites. These sites mislead women in search of information concerning abortion procedures. They try to make women feel guilty as they spread rumors about the danger of abortion.

Isabelle Louis, the president of Planning Familial for Paris and its region, hosted Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.  Although only a few journalists showed up, Louis said, “the event went well. The Minister appreciates the work that we at Planning Familial do in support of women’s rights and she was clearly comfortable. At the same time, she delivered a crucial message for us, that is to say that abortion is not a service to women, it is a right; and that it was important to assert that this right is fully supported by the government.”

Control of the body is critical for women to fully participate in the society. Isabelle Louis emphasized that contraception and abortion are a real means of emancipation for women. She added, “In contrast, what tires me  a great deal are the journalists’ questions. Instead of problematizing this issue, they only carry out the discourse of the anti-IVG (anti-abortion) with stupid questions asking if this website is going to encourage abortion. It is worrisome to see that we are in a society that does not allow itself to think and reflect but is just good at peddling ideas as if they were equivalent. As if the ideological words of the anti (anti abortion groups) were equivalent to a state that affirms the rights of women.”

Every journalist present at the event asked that question, including journalists from leftist newspapers. Isabelle Louis reminded them that “women are not stupid. If they go to this site, it is because they want information about abortion. We must stop thinking that women are completely bewildered by what is happening to them.” Moreover, the woman who had written to the Minister to complain about the deceptive websites was present. Her alerts pushed the Minister to take action to clarify the situation. As the Minister explained, she does not want to encourage anything. Rather, the role of a government is to inform people of their rights. The Minister’s message was clear; she relocated the question of abortion and reproductive rights in its proper context: public rights and public service.

The control of the woman’s body is key to women’s full participation in the world. In the United States, Senator Elizabeth Warren recently the blackmailing by Republicans who want to “change the law so that employers can deny women access to birth control coverage. In fact letting employers decide for the women if they can get birth control covered on their insurance plan is so important that the Republicans are willing to shut down the government.” At a time when the right to an abortion is threatened and denied in many states, we wish that reproductive rights would appear as a moral and governmental responsibility rather than as a political game.

The French Minister of Women’s Rights and Gender Equality is rightly defending those rights. A right is a right: women have the right to contraception and abortion.

(Written by Brigitte Marti, with Isabelle Louis, the President of Planning Familial Paris and its region)