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Women’s Health: Birth Control and Family Planning in France
At a Glance:
- Contraceptives are readily available, and costs can usually be reclaimed (at least in part) through your social security plan.
- The morning-after pill is available without consultation from French pharmacies.
- Abortion is legal within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
- Doctors can refuse to terminate a pregnancy, and the woman must usually have a one-week reflection period prior to the procedure.
Finding a Gynecologist You Trust
French gynecologists do not have the best reputation right now. Since 2014, there has been an ongoing public discussion sparked by the Twitter hashtag #payetonuterus (pay for your womb). French women have complained about judgmental and unfriendly gynecologists, unnecessary pain during medical exams, or even being denied birth control due to the doctor’s personal beliefs.
Of course, this does not mean that bad gynecologists in France are the rule rather than the exception. However, the debate highlights the importance of personal recommendations for finding a doctor to trust with such intimate matters.
Sourcing a good doctor is never easy, but unlike many other forms of specialist care in France, you do have a degree of personal choice in finding your gynecologist. There is no need to have a referral from your médicin traitant, so it is best to ask around for well-regarded gynecologists in your area.
If you are particularly anxious about who will treat you and don’t have any word-to-mouth recommendations from friends, there are medical rating websites for French doctors as well, for example, NoteTonDoc. Moreover, a feminist initiative has started a database with personal reviews of gynecologists. Such resources can help you find a practitioner who will be understanding of your needs and experiences.
No Time for False Modesty: Going to the Gynecologist
When you go for your appointment some things may be a little different from home. Unlike in, for example, the US or Canada, it is customary in France for the doctor to ask you to completely undress for your examination, and no hospital gown or sheet will be offered for modesty. Depending on where you come from, be prepared for some minor culture shock!
A routine gynecological exam in France includes a Pap smear (check for abnormal cells on the cervix) for all patients, and a breast exam for all women over the age of 30. Women between the ages of 50 and 74 will also be invited by their healthcare provider to take part in a mammographic screening exam every other year.
If you have any concerns about irregular periods, abnormal bleeding, sexually transmitted diseases, or genital infections, don’t hesitate to contact your gynecologist immediately. The same applies if you discover any new lumps in your breasts or other breast changes.
La Pilule: Hormonal Birth Control in France
Using contraception is usually an encouraged practice in France, and different birth control methods should be readily available. You can get a prescription for birth control pills (la pilule) by visiting a general practitioner, midwife, or gynecologist in France. They will advise you on the product you need and write a prescription, which you can collect at a pharmacy.
Depending on the type of birth control pill, prices range from 2 EUR to 15 EUR for a month’s supply. Reimbursement rates also depend on the specific brand and may amount to up to 65% of the price, which will be covered by social security.
If you already have a prescription acquired outside of France, you can take the packet to the pharmacy and see if an equivalent French brand can be sourced, but your usual pill may be slightly different in France. Please be aware that supplies cannot be posted from abroad.
Other Contraceptive Methods
The IUD (intra-uterine device, or stérilet) has become an increasingly popular contraceptive method in recent years. It has to be inserted by your médecin traitant, midwife, or gynecologist. With IUDs costing on average between 30 EUR (copper devices) and 125 EUR (hormonal ones), French social security will again reimburse 65% of the price.
Other contraceptive methods are also widely available. To get advice on hormonal implants, rings, or patches, or on barrier methods like the diaphragm, etc., please talk to a medical professional. They can also give you more information on the related costs and whether or not these will be reimbursed by French social security.
Condoms (préservatifs), on the other hand, can simply be purchased at the nearest pharmacy, drugstore, supermarket, tobacconist, or gas station. At family planning centers and sexual health clinics, they are often distributed for free.
Handling an Unwanted Pregnancy: What to Do?
In case of an “accident”, emergency contraception (i.e. the morning-after pill) can be easily purchased at your local pharmacy. No prescription is needed, but the cost is not covered by French social security. Known as la contraception d’urgence or pilule du lendemain, the morning-after pill is usually sold for around 7–18 EUR (depending on the brand).
Abortion is legal in France within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. The procedure is known as interruption volontaire de grossesse (IVG) and can be carried out by doctors, hospitals, or private clinics. Doctors have the right to refuse to carry out the procedure, although they are obliged to direct the woman to the local family planning center, known as centre de planification et d’education familial (CPEF).
Women seeking an IVG are required to have two medical appointments — with at least a week of reflection in between — before the termination will be carried out. This time frame can be reduced to two days if the twelve-week cut-off period is approaching. At the first doctor’s appointment before the reflection period, the doctor will also recommend resources for (voluntary) psychological counselling if the woman needs someone to talk to about her options.
A termination is ultimately seen as the woman’s choice in France. Only the woman herself can put in a request for an IVG. Single women do not need a consent form from the father prior to seeking out a termination of pregnancy, and nor do minors need parental permission, although they are required to have an adult chaperone.
Non-resident visitors in France have the same rights as French citizens to seek an abortion, although they may be expected to pay for the treatment themselves. For those registered with French social security, the cost of a termination will be covered by the state in full.
If you need to discuss your options in case of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy (or regarding contraception and sexual health in general), you can call 0800 081111. It’s a free and anonymous government hotline, but English-speaking staff might not be available.
For more information on prenatal care and giving birth, please read our article on expecting mothers in France.
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