Hats off Madame Simone Veil!

In France, feminists and humanists are mourning Simone Veil, the emblematic woman who in 1975 presented and defended her abortion bill in the almost exclusively masculine French parliament.

She has been perceived as a rebel and she would say that she never accepted that women had restrictive rights. As a young magistrate in charge of prisons from 1957 to 1964, she changed the extremely repressive conditions of women in prison. During the Algerian War, she acted for the rights of Algerian political prisoners putting in place a strategy to curtail the execution of male Algerian prisoners on death row. Meanwhile she also worked to stop the mistreatment of Algerian female political prisoners, regrouping them in a special unit under far better conditions where they were able to pursue their education.

Simone Veil knew what being in prison meant, having been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau when she was 16 along with one of her sisters and her mother, who died in 1945 from exhaustion and typhus after they had been transferred to Bergen-Belsen. She survived the worst with an extreme desire to salute and respect life. She always said that she kept the memory of her inspiring mother at her side always, especially in her fight for the respect of women’s and human rights.

Among her other achievements at her various positions in the French administration was the recognition of dual parental control and family legal matters, rights for single mothers and their children, and adoption rights for women.

In 1974 Simone Veil became the first female full minister in a French government. The previous attempt to have women in an administration occurred during Leon Blum’s Front Populaire government in 1936 with 3 women nominated “sous secretaire d’etat” (Undersecretary of State). At the time women did not have the right to vote in France.

Simone Veil’s first legislation was to have contraception recognized in the French Health care system, removing the financial burden of contraception.

The event that made her feminist stand highly visible was “la loi Veil”, the bill to legalize abortion in France, that passed on January 17, 1975. Remarkably, she was in a center right government. The bill was fully supported by the left but not by the members of her own party and she needed some of their votes to pass it.

The bill itself was cautious and called for improvement but it represented a necessary start. France had some of the most restrictive laws for women with the Code Napoleon still wielding its patriarchal control of the nation. However, things were changing, feminist movements were increasingly visible and the solidarity for the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights in the French law was total.

Importantly, the principles for the existence of the bill didn’t revolve around the right to privacy but rather around the social impact of the code of silence and hypocritical stand against women’s right to access abortion. About 300 women would die every year in France from botched abortions. The slogan “abortion to the rich and punishment for the poor” was chanted in demonstrations for abortion rights.

With this bill, Simone Veil placed abortion in a context of contraception and not murder while addressing the responsibility of society in confronting the social needs of women of all socio-economic backgrounds, including elements such as financial coverage of pregnancies, childcare, and health care. She later established paid maternity-leave.

Simone Veil relied on a strong feminist movement of solidarity to achieve the advancement of women’s rights. For instance, in 1972, the lawyer Gisèle Alimi transformed a trial against a young woman who had an abortion after a rape and the women who helped her, including her mother, into a political scene for the cause of women’s rights. She had supported Simone Veil in defending the rights of the Algerian women prisoners, and remained her eternal ally and vice versa, although being from different political sides.

During the debate, Simone Veil asserted that the fetus was not yet a full human being. She used the WHO statistics about pregnancies and the flimsiness of life, to remind that 45 pregnancies out of 100 miscarried during the 2 first weeks of pregnancy. She emphasized the embryo as a becoming not a being, as opposed to the woman who is pregnant. She claimed that the legalization of abortion was an absolute necessity to keep order while normalizing the role of women in the society.

Despite all her precautions, she had to face the most violent opposition from her own party, with anti-Semitic, racist and sexist slurs invoking images of Nazi times against her. She explained later that she found her strength in the memory of her mother and her own battle to stay alive. In 2008, in an interview, she said that she still received hate mail for her role in the liberalization of abortion in France. But she never flinched.

While Minister of Health she continued her battle for the women’s workplace rights, imposing recognition of the status of nurses and other positions in majority held by women. She also pushed for the increased presence of women in medical institutions at the upper level.

She was also a staunch supporter of reconciliation between France and Germany and an architect of the European Union. In 1979, she became the first woman President of the European Parliament. There she worked restlessly for male-female parity in politics. She always believed that affirmative action was the only way to change the mentalities and to guarantee better presence of women in every section of the society. She always reminded people that it would benefit the entire society.

In 1995, after the scandalous episode of the “juppettes” (short skirt) terms that symbolized the exclusion of women from Chirac’s administration, Simone Veil was part of group of ten women, five from the right and five from the left, who had held ministerial responsibilities to work on a manifesto to obtain female-male parity in public representation. They asked the candidates to the next presidential election to sign it. The female-male parity is now in the Constitution.

In 2008 after being elected at the Académie Francaise, she reflected on the situation of women in society, acknowledging that although access to contraception and abortion were crucial for the independence of women, women were still the target of basic discriminations: workplace inequality, underrepresentation in positions of power, undervalued societal roles and often perceived as fillers.  She ended that interview by recognizing that the way for women’s rights was long and added that the climate was still not in favor of women.

Simone Veil has been described as a radical feminist and a radical humanist. She described herself as French Jewish laic woman who rebelled against male domination and all sorts of domination and adopted the European ideal “united in diversity.” She practiced solidarity with a resolute vigor always joining the cause of the defense of the most vulnerable.  May her courage and unshakable capacity to denounce sexism and xenophobia and to build coherent resistance be an inspiration at the time of constant challenges for human and women’s dignity. Hats off Madame Veil!


(Photo Credit: Le Monde)

Forty years after passing abortion laws, France reaffirms all women’s right to abortion!


Simone Veil addresses French National Assembly, November 26, 1974

Forty years ago, on November 26th, 1974 France’s Parliament adopted Simone Veil’s bill to guarantee access to legal abortion for women under certain restrictions. Simone Veil emphasized at the time that abortion was a hypocritical social issue since only the poorer women were penalized by the restrictions. These restrictions have since been removed to become a right for all women of all ages and free of charge in France. This past Wednesday, November 26th 2014, the French Parliament adopted a resolution to reaffirm the fundamental right to abortion for all women in France, in Europe and in the world.

The resolution added that women had fundamental right to control over their own bodies, as it is the condition for the construction of real equality between women and men and for a society of progress. The resolution also included the importance of sexual education and free access to contraception and abortion. Finally, the resolution expressed France’s European as well as international engagement for universal access to family planning.

Forty years ago there were only 9 women in the Parliament and 481 men. Simone Veil admitted recently that she had not imagined at the time, the hatred that her law was going to generate. Last Wednesday, only 7 representatives voted against the resolution. Though still too many, this is significant progress from the 189 representatives who voted against it in 1974.

Nonetheless, before the presentation of the resolution, the anti abortion lobby led by the Foundation Lejeune asked their followers to flood targeted center, right and extreme right representatives with a sample email. It contained twenty words with explicit phrases such as he/she “would not comprehend that a national representative would celebrate as a right, an attack on human life.” The Foundation Lejeune says that there is no support within the United Nations framework to claim the right to abortion; therefore they contest the universal right of women to control over their own bodies.

In the current context of worldwide restrictions on women’s rights, the French Family Planning did not want to take any risk and so organized along with other groups a response to these attacks, asking women and men to voice their support for access to reproductive services. They also reminded the representatives that clandestine abortions result in 8 million women being seriously injured, with 47 000 dying every year in the world. Forty years ago, women went en masse to the parliament to support Veil’s bill; this time they used the Internet.

This resolution signals that rights for women have to be reaffirmed over and over, especially in a more conservative Europe and world pressed by neoliberal politics that target women and the poor. The current trend is to reconfigure passed victories as we see happening in the United States, in Spain, in Italy, in the UK and the list is long. Even in France where the resolution was passed, restructuration of the health care services demanded by austerity measures are endangering access to such reproductive services. All this goes hand in hand with an increase of violence against women.

At least, this resolution institutionalized the significance of women’s reproductive rights despite the constant attacks, and that in itself is a good and important political initiative!


(Photo Credit: French Government)