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How a Holocaust survivor helped win the fight for abortion rights

Five years after her death, Simone Veil is back in the news — in France and the US

Five years ago, the individual repeatedly named the most admired woman in France died at the age of 90. So admired that, just a year after her death, her remains were moved to the Panthéon, the final stop for those grands hommes et femmes whose lives have contributed to the French nation’s glory.

During her long life, however, Simone Veil had not always been greeted with admiration. In 1979, for example, a gang of thugs from the antisemitic and anti-immigrant Front National, led by its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, tried to break up a meeting where she was speaking, Veil stared them down: “Vous ne me faites pas peur. J’ai survécu à pire que vous.” (“You don’t scare me. I’ve survived worse than you.”)

Worse, no doubt, had been her experience as a 16-year-old French Jew in occupied France; she was arrested and deported with the rest of her family to Auschwitz. While Veil, with two sisters, indeed survived, her father, mother and brother did not.

Upon her return from to France in 1945, she went to law school, a relatively rare feat for a woman then. Veil soon moved to the judiciary and did something even rarer: She defended the rights of Algerians during its war of independence against France, moving prisoners from Algeria, where they faced torture by the French military, to prisons in France.

Drawn to politics yet determined to defend the cause of moderation in a divided nation, Veil was picked in 1974 by President Valéry Giscard-Estaing to become health minister in his centrist government. Giscard soon decided that Veil — the only female minister in his government — would lead his government’s effort to legalize abortion. Just as France had trailed behind other western nations in giving women the right to cast their vote — they were not enfranchised until 1944 — so too did it trail most in giving women the right to control their bodies.

If Veil had any illusions over the reaction from the Gaullist and Catholic right wing, they were quickly shredded. “I did not imagine the hatred I was going to ignite,” she later recalled about her appearance in the National Assembly, where the debate over the bill, which came to be known as the “Veil law,” extended over several days.

No doubt “erupted,” rather than “extended,” is more accurate. In her opening address, Veil observed that she stood before an “assembly composed almost exclusively of men.” For this reason, she felt duty-bound to affirm that “no woman has recourse to abortion with a light heart. It is always a drama and always will be a drama. For this, you need only listen to women.”

And yet this drama repeatedly veered toward tragedy in a nation where those with the means went abroad for abortions, while those without went clandestine. More than 300,000 women every year, Veil declared, found themselves in the latter situation: “We must end these wrongs and this turmoil,” she said.

Her declaration, in turn, sparked turmoil and wrongs as shocking today as then. Conservatives and Catholics rose one after the other to denounce the proposed legislation. One representative warned that moneyed interests would invest in what he called “avortoirs” — a pun on the French words “avorter,” or “abort,” and “abattoir,” or “slaughterhouse.”

Horrifically, yet inevitably, still other national representatives compared the French legislation to Nazi genocide, variously evoking the specter of embryos “thrown into crematory ovens” and demanding to know the difference between the Nazi doctors who practiced human experiments and French doctors who practiced abortions.

In her autobiography, Veil recounts that she received “thousands of letters, many of them abominable, written by Catholics and antisemites.” One morning, she woke to find that Nazi swastikas had been painted on the facade of the family house. Suddenly, the countless personal dramas of those seeking illegal abortions in France were joined by the public drama of a victim of genocide accused of being its enabler.

On the strength of left-wing representatives, the bill eventually passed and became law in 1975. Veil took great pains to underscore that it was a compromise. Alongside the legalization of unconditional abortion were several restrictions, including mandatory counseling and a seven-day wait period after a woman’s final request for an abortion. Ultimately, the law nevertheless meant, in Veil’s words, “that finally the decision can be made by a woman.”

Oddly, the death of legal abortion in France’s sister republic, the United States, occurred just days before the fifth anniversary of the death of Simone Veil. Not surprisingly, French commentators have invoked Veil’s legacy in response to the decision of our Supreme Court. As a columnist for the magazine Elle asked, “Who cannot have a thought for Simone Veil on such a day?”

Tellingly, the response in France does not stop with editorials. There is now a groundswell among political parties not just on the left, but also President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government, to inscribe the right to abortion into the nation’s constitution. Tellingly, the remnants of the Gaullist right, as well as the remnants of the Front National, recently refurbished and rebaptized by Marine Le Pen as the National Rally, are either silent or reticent over this prospect.

On this side of the Atlantic, we can take both a deep breath as well as heart from these developments in France. Wrongs will always persist as must the struggle to right them, a fact Veil recognized and reflected on toward the end of her life. “While I work less,” she remarked, “I persist to fight for those causes which are just.”

Indeed, who cannot have a thought for Simone Veil today?


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