Auschwitz survivor, symbol of the progression of women’s rights and key element in the creation of the European Union, Simone Veil passed away this week at the age of 89. French prime minister Emmanuel Macron confirmed her death on Twitter with : “May her example inspire our fellow citizens, as the best of what France can achieve.”
Simone is debatably best known for her leading role in legalising IVG ( the voluntary termination of pregnancy ) in France. In 1971, feminists began a campaign to overturn France’s ban on abortion, attacking the stigma of pregnancy termination and women’s deaths in backstreet operations. They emphasised the fact that allowing abortion to remain illegal was endangering the lives of countless young women. A member of the center-right Union for French Democracy, she was named health minister under president Valery Giscard d’Estaing. Simone’s standpoint on abortion was heavily criticized : in three days of debate before the National Assembly passed the law on Nov. 29, 1974, by a vote of 284 to 189, antisemitic and sexist insults were hurled at her in the chamber. Critics likened abortion to Nazi euthanasia; she was asked, “Madame Minister, do you want to send children to the ovens? She is admired for the fact that she kept her calm while she had to endure such aggression. She resisted, and within the precincts of this very predominantly masculine assembly wanted to share a woman’s conviction. Furthermore, it was a vote that went beyond traditional political clans since all socialists (except 1) and all communists voted in favour but also 55 UDR (out of 174), 26 centrists (out of 52), 17 independent republicans ( out of 65) and 7 independants (out of 19).
Simone Veil speaking at the French Parliament as the health minister in 1974 (Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
The legislation – named the “Loi Veil” (Veil Law) – is today considered a cornerstone of women’s rights and secularism in France. For the new generation, Simone Veil’s heritage is predominantly one of fundamental rights for women. The Veil Law is one of compromise and medical supervision. Its aim was to combat one of the main factors for the exacerbation of social inequalities : unwanted pregnancies. It involved taking account of the socio-economic reasons for abortion : disruption of education or employment; lack of support from the father; desire to provide schooling for existing children; and poverty, unemployment or inability to afford additional children... Nonetheless, Veil considered it could only be a last resort. The point was not for abortion to become a form of contraception : in fact, she hoped that with a law that would improve the distribution of contraception there would be less abortions.
Simone Veil always considered women’s freedom of the utmost importance. Thanks to her, who proclaimed that “you simply need to listen to women”, millions of women had and still have access to services that are there to help and listen to those going through abortion instead of berating them. She has indirectly saved many lives, as according to stats , in the 10 years that followed the passing of the law in France, fetal deaths reduced from 9,358 to 5,835. She has been and will remain a symbol of the battle for women’s rights, and deserves to be recognised as such internationally.
Now, some are asking for her inhumation in the Panthéon, where she would be buried with the likes of Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, Marie Curie… A petition has been set up.