Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor who became a lawyer and then a much-admired feminist politician in France, died yesterday at the age of 89.
As France’s health minister in the 1970s, she pushed through laws that lifted restrictions on contraception and legalized abortion. During the National Assembly’s debate over abortion, “phrases like ‘an act of murder,’ ‘monstrous’ and ‘France is making coffins instead of cribs’ were hurled in the chamber,” the New York Times said in its obituary for Veil. One opponent compared abortion to Nazi behavior. (Veil’s parents and brother died in the Holocaust.) In her reply, Veil made a point that hits home especially hard as Americans fight an anti-woman healthcare bill that was written by 13 men.
“I will share a conviction of women, and I apologize for doing it in front of this assembly comprised almost exclusively of men: No woman resorts to abortion lightheartedly.”
The Times reported that Veil also worked on “drafting legislation expanding the rights of prison inmates, people with disabilities and disadvantaged children, as well as measures that barred discrimination and expanded health benefits.”
In 1979, she left the French government and and successfully ran to become the first president of the new European Parliament, the legislative body for the precursor to the European Union. The New York Times contemporaneous story on her election noted that, “Mrs. Veil, dressed as usual in a long-sleeved dress that covers the number 78651 tattooed on her arm by the Germans, sat almost unnoticed in a back row” during an hour-long address by another member, Louise Weiss.
Veil returned to the French government in 1993, as minister for health, social affairs and urban issues. She later became the president of a body devoted to the assimilation of immigrants, and a member of the Constitutional Council, the country’s highest legal authority.
In 2008, Veil became one of few politicians and the sixth woman to be elected to the 40-member Académie Française, which is the ultimate authority on the French language. Upon her election, novelist Jean d’Ormesson said she had earned the support of the French people in a positive way:
“This support does not rest on mediocre and lame consensus among the countless opinions that never cease dividing our old country. It rests on the principles that you affirm and, against all odds, without ever raising your voice, manage to convince everyone of. We can say this without airs: In the heart of political life, you offer a moral and republican image.”
Hers is a life worth learning about. In addition to the New York Times story, I recommend these obituaries.
You should also read this Quartz story about the Senate’s healthcare bill. Writer Heather Timmons crunched some numbers and found that the 142-page TrumpCare bill:
- Uses the word “mother” twice, both times in relation to abortion “and specifically to how it will cut health care for women.”
- Uses the word “pregnancy” only in relation to abortion and work requirements, “except in one instance, in listing what ‘Medicaid flexibility programs,’ which give states more control of Medicaid resources, should cover.
- Uses the word “woman” three times, in relation to abortion and a new work requirement.
- Never uses the words “maternity,” “maternal,” or “women.”
- Uses the word “abortion” 11 times.
In contrast, Timmons wrote, “The Affordable Care Act … contains dozens of specific mentions of ‘women’ that have nothing to do with abortion or work requirements” in its 900 pages. If this doesn’t make it clear to you that the Republican men in the Senate hate women, I don’t know what will!