In June, 2017, France lost a great lady considered as “French people’s favourite woman”- Simone Veil. It is probably more accurate to call her French women’s favorite woman, a true icon. If some final words of farewell could be spoken about her, it could be,  “Thanks Simone for giving women the choice of being a parent.”

Simone Veil in 1974, when she was health minister. (Agence France-Presse/ Getty Images)

The most important legacy of Simone Veil is that she was the front-runner in getting abortion legalized in France. She was just 48 when she was appointed the Health Minister by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1975. As the Health Minister, she was given the difficult task of decriminalizing abortion. The task was particularly challenging since the assemblies that she was required to convince were all-male, subjecting her to the most wicked insults. One of the worst instances was when she was accused of being a Nazi, while she herself had been a victim of Nazi concentration and extermination camps during World War II.

She was not a radical feminist, but Simone Veil engaged with the male politicians and made them realize what a woman obliged to have an abortion really felt. While supporting abortion, she did not have any contempt towards women’s ability to give life. It helped simultaneously give women the ability of becoming happy mothers in their destinies.

Far from making abortion commonplace, she acted so as to regulate it by introducing the law in the following way: “Abortion must remain an exception, the last solution for situation without any end”. Using plain words and a firm voice, she put the focus on the anxiety any woman willing to have an abortion has to face, which is increased by the social anxiety of being excluded by the law and hence, living in shame, disgrace, loneliness and the fear of being hunted.

Indeed, the women who wanted to abort had no option but to hide themselves without any support because according to catholic morality, only God is considered the master of life and the one who has the power to withdraw it. Therefore, the victims of rapes or other situations ended up living with the unfair insult of being criminals. Most of them used clandestine techniques of abortion, thus endangering their lives, trying to perforate their uterus in very poor hygiene and safety conditions.

Without any pessimism, Simone Veil drew French people’s attention on the social diversity of women who had abortion, not only single young mothers but also exhausted housewives who could not financially and physically take on another child’s education. She thus extended the problem to a large part of female population, and hence was supported by the “343 bitches manifest”: in 1971, 343 women added their signature to a public declaration stating that they had an abortion once in their life. This list consisted of names of women belonging to the intellectual circles as well as show-business.

This committed and polemical statement ended with “the 10 commandments of the bourgeois state”, thus calling out the so-called religious morality and criticizing the totalitarianism of the French deputies in their willingness to determine women’s destinies. First of these commandments was “You shall choose whether it’s a fetus or a human being, when the mother is a woman”.

Despite this declaration, the process of passing the bill wasn’t easy. A 25-hour long debate took place with 64 participants. Of these participants, the right-wing deputies were the most opposed to the soon-to-be law. One of the deputies named Emmanuel Hamel even went to the extent of making the assembly listen to a baby’s heartbeats from a tape recorder.

Simone Veil in French Parliament in 1974. (Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

On the 29th of November, 1974, the bill was adopted by a majority of 284 votes in favour and 189 against. For the first time, socialists declared they would not vote in favour because of an amendment allowing private hospitals not to carry out abortion. On the 13th of December, 1974, the bill was adopted by French Senate, and was consequently promulgated on the 17th of January, 1975. This was a provisional draft bill, which became definitive only on the 31st of December, 1979.

When she was Health minister, Simone Veil also provided mothers having very young children with financial help. After the Algerian decolonization in the early sixties, she welcomed Algerian women who had been victims of bad treatment or rape to France.

It must be noted that Simone Veil was an idol not just for the feminist cause. She spoke on behalf of all victims who did not get the platform for expressing themselves. She was educated by a non-practicing Jewish family, and was arrested by the Nazi police in 1944. She was sent to the Drancy concentration camp situated in the Auschwitz extermination camp where she was required to perform forced labour.

Later in her life, she accepted to come back to Auschwitz with 5 of her grandchildren to deliver a speech about European Jewish people during the Shoah (holocaust). “Survivors from Shoah kept quiet because nobody wanted to listen to them. […] Because what is unbearable is to speak without being listened to”, were her words as a president for the memory of Shoah. She exhibited a strong willingness to make Germany and France reconcile and build European peace; Veil was elected as the president of the European Parliament in 1979.

Simone, thanks for your courage and humanity. Thanks for standing up for all of us French women who pay a tribute to you today as the architect of our freedom.

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