France Will Bury Its Abortion Rights Champion As a ‘National Hero’

July 5, 2017, 4:42 PM UTC
Simone Veil Funeral At Hotel Des Invalides In Paris
Aurelien Meunier—Getty Images

At a funeral ceremony with military honor at Les Invalides in Paris on Wednesday, President Emmanuel Macron paid respects to a woman who represents “the best of what [the country] can achieve.”

He praised feminist icon Simone Veil, who died last week at age 89, for making France “better and more beautiful” and announced that the politician who crusaded for the legalization of abortion in the 1970s will be buried alongside the nation’s most revered figures in Paris’s Panthéon.

Veil, widely admired in France, will become just the fifth woman laid to rest in the grand mausoleum. The Panthéon, which also houses the remains of 76 men, is where writer Victor Hugo and scientist Marie Curie are buried. Online petitions calling for Veil to be placed in the Panthéon attracted thousands of signatures as they circulated after her death. Her internment there is reliant on a parliamentary act for “national heroes,” according to the BBC.

Simone Veil
Veil, as minister of health, addresses the National Assembly on the subject of abortion in November 1974. Keystone Getty Images.
Keystone Getty Images

Veil 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.”

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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 who 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.

This story has been updated to clarify that Veil’s funeral took place at Les Invalides.

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