By Claire Zillman
July 4, 2017

At a funeral ceremony with military honor at Paris’ Elysee Palace on Wednesday, France will bury a woman who represents “the best of what [the country] can achieve,” according to President Emmanuel Macron.

Simone Veil, who died last week at age 89, survived Auschwitz as a child—”I am still haunted by the images, the odors, the cries, the humiliation,” she said in 2005—and went on to become one of France’s most respected politicians.

After her concentration camp was liberated, Veil studied law and worked as a judge before becoming France’s first female general secretary of the Council of Magistrates in 1970. The role, Agence France-Presse reports, “served as a springboard for a political career that fundamentally changed France.”

The next year, Veil threw herself behind a feminist campaign to overturn France’s ban on abortion, a movement that sought to reverse the stigma of pregnancy termination and reduce the number of women dying from back-alley operations. While she pushed for decriminalizing abortions, she maintained that the practice should be the exception; “the last resort for desperate situations.”

She continued her crusade after being named health minister, enduring insults from colleagues that compared abortions to the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews. One lawmaker accused Veil of “genocide” and another spoke of embryos “thrown into the crematorium ovens,” according to AFP.

“I did not imagine the hatred I would stir up,” Veil said decades later.

The legislation legalizing abortion that eventually passed parliament in 1974 is known as the Veil law and is—even today—considered a pillar of women’s rights in France.

But Veil’s legacy reaches beyond women’s reproductive rights; she is also credited with pushing open a door for female politicians. When she fought for the legalization of abortion before parliament in 1974, there were just nine women the 490-seat chamber; today there are 224.

 

@clairezillman

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