No woman resorts to abortion lightheartedly. – Simone Veil
Simone Veil was a French politician and champion of women’s rights. Active in French politics from the 1950s, she is famous for legalising abortion in France in 1975, and for becoming the first elected President of the European Parliament. As one of the most popular politicians in France, she guaranteed many fundamental rights for women, and throughout her political career, acted with dignity, courage and moral conviction.
In 1943, Simone was a young Jewish girl living in France when the Vichy Government was collaborating with Nazi Germany. Aged only 16, she was arrested by German troops and taken to Auschwitz with her mother and sister. When the camp was dismantled in 1945, they were incarcerated in Bergen Belsen. While Simone and her sister survived the Holocaust, Simone’s mother, brother and father did not. The horrific events of Simone’s early life formed one of her key political beliefs: the necessity of a united, peaceful and cooperative Europe.
After Bergen Belsen was liberated later in 1945, Simone returned to France where she gained a diploma in Law and Political Science. She became a Magistrate in the French Ministry of Justice in 1956 and specialised in human rights – especially the rights of women and prisoners, including Algerians detained during the country’s war of independence. In 1964, Simone became the Director of Civil Affairs where she guaranteed the right to dual parental control of family legal matters and adoptive rights for women. During this time, she met her husband Antoine Veil, a businessman and politician, and the couple went on to have three sons.
At age 46, Simone was taken from the Civil Service to serve as Health Minister, becoming only the second woman to hold full cabinet rank in France. She would serve in this position from 1974 to 1979, but her career in public office would span decades, and would contribute to expanding the rights of prison inmates and people with disabilities, helping disadvantaged children and developing healthcare. However, most famous is her work in women’s rights.
In 1973, Simone pushed through laws to liberalise contraception in France; this led to the pill being supported by the social security system. A year later, she gave a speech to the National Assembly, which was mostly made up of conservative Catholic men, in which she passionately defended a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion. Despite huge criticism from the right wing of French politics, a three day debate and comments which likened abortion to Nazi euthanasia, the law passed in November 1974 and took effect in January 1975.
Today the “Veil Law” is considered a landmark piece of legislation which underpins women’s rights in France as well as the separation of Church and State. Besides this law, during her time as Health Minister she also worked to improve the lives of women through expanding healthcare, childcare and maternity benefits.
A great believer in and defender of European stability, Simone became the first President of an elected European Parliament from 1979 until 1982. After her tenure as President ended, Simone continued working for the European Parliament until 1993. She then returned to domestic politics as Health Minister working on the rights of disabled people and those diagnosed as HIV positive. During this time she continued to advocate for peace and democracy, and she was outspoken in her opposition to the killing fields of the Balkans in the 1990s.
Simone continued working in politics in her later life and held a number of high profile positions, including nine years as a member of the Constitutional Council, France’s highest legal authority, where she was part of reviewing the constitutionality of French law. She spent seven years working with the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, France’s Holocaust remembrance organisation.
Upon her death in June 2017 at age 89, the newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Simone Veil would be buried in the Pantheon. The famous mausoleum in Paris houses 72 of France’s most adored cultural and historical figures including Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emile Zola. It is reserved for those who have impacted the country in a fundamental and positive way.
Simone will be only the fifth woman to be buried there.