France moves to ban fake anti-abortion news sites, setting an example for the U.S.

Last week, the lower house of French Parliament passed a bill banning anti-abortion fake news sites in what feels like a very deliberate message to the U.S., telling us we need to get it together. The plan is now being passed to the Senate and would render it a criminal offense to publish anti-abortion content online that is “deliberately misleading, intimidating and/or exerting psychological or moral pressure.”

Laurence Rossignol, France’s minister for family, children, and women’s rights, argued that anti-choice groups in France are creating websites that appear to be associated with the government and look “neutral and objective,” but are “deliberately seeking to trick women.” The law would punish the perpetrators with up to two years in prison and a €30,000 ($32,000) fine, addressing what has only very recently become an issue in France, as deceptive anti-choice websites are increasingly becoming the top results yielded by search engines.

One website, ivg.net (“ivg” stands for interruption volontaire de grossesseor voluntary interruption of pregnancy), is ridden with testimonies of women and “counselors” falsely portraying the procedure as excruciatingly painful and dangerous.

It’s worth noting this is hardly a France-exclusive problem. American anti-choice “news” websites consistently refer to and portray abortion clinics as purveyors of the “abortion business,” falsely associate abortion with violence, diseases, cancer, and fatality, and lie that abortion has never saved women’s lives. Disturbingly enough, many continue to associate black women having abortions with eugenics and genocide.

Simultaneously, they leave out crucial statistics about how pro-choice policies tend to lead to lower rates of abortion, while TRAP laws and other regulations fail to. Or how, historically, when abortion was illegal, countless women either died or severely injured themselves attempting to self-terminate their pregnancies.

Other websites pose as crisis pregnancy centers claiming to tell women all their options, but deny that abortion is an option by lying that the procedure leads to breast cancer, PTSD, and even “sexual dysfunction.” One website called The Women’s Center goes so far as to liken the morning after pill with medication abortion because, sure, a fertilized egg is totally the equivalent of a fetus.

According to Rossignol, the bill isn’t an attack on freedom of speech. “Everyone is free to affirm their hostility to abortion online or anywhere else, but on condition of doing it in all honesty, because freedom of expression can’t be confused with manipulating people,” she stated at the debate in Parliament Thursday.

And she has a point: There’s a huge difference between publishing an op-ed detailing the reasons for one’s personal, moral opposition to the procedure and creating websites posing as clinics or the government and spreading objectively false, scientifically disproven lies about abortion. Reproductive choice isn’t just about legal rights — it’s also about information and the ability to make an informed choice. Deceptive anti-abortion news websites contribute to denying women this right.

This bill follows the 1993 passage of a French law against intimidating women seeking abortions. In the United States, abortion clinics and women have struggled to defend themselves from the intimidation of anti-choice protesters, due to Supreme Court rulings like McCullen v. Coakley in 2014 prohibiting buffer zones around clinics. Additionally, the pervasiveness of anti-abortion propaganda — from 2015 Planned Parenthood sting videos edited to portray fetal tissue donation as “selling baby parts,” to president-elect Donald Trump portraying abortion as ripping live babies out at nine months gestation — only make abortion clinics and women seeking them even more vulnerable to harassment and violence by protesters misled to believe abortion is murder.

Granted, not everyone thinks this new, potential law is such a great idea. Leaders of France’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement argue that it’s “anti-constitutional.” While the line between free speech and censorship is definitely tricky, the law, again, isn’t prohibiting people from expressing disdain for the procedure; it’s simply prohibiting the deliberate spread of lies that infringe on women’s right to informed reproductive choice.

Ideally, we’d have something like this in the United States, but as the war on women continues to make serious gains following the election of Trump, the odds of that seem increasingly unlikely.