Profiles of Courage

Simone Veil: The Holocaust Survivor Who Revolutionized Women’s Reproductive Rights

 

Simone Veil — 1927 – 2017.

Dignity.
Persistence.
Tenderness.
Education.

Women are very different from men; that’s what we need to understand. We are complimentary and we need both in the world. To discard women from society altogether is a loss for society.

Madame Simone Veil is the face of Philofem and an eternal heroine in the heart of France. What I deeply admire about her is that she never chose to let resentment and victimhood animate the choices she made after her liberation from Auschwitz. In fact, she did the very opposite: she fought for freedom and human right all of her life. She balanced a family and her human family. She lost her parents, her sister, and later her son. Still, she remained tender and sensitive to human pain and issues that women were facing at the time. She crowned women with the reproductive rights they had lost in the late 19th century and she also changed the laws to assure safety and precautious care in orphanages. Before Madame Veil intervened in law, mothers were not authorized to sleep with their sick children in hospitals.

Simone Veil speaking in front of the French National Assembly in 1974.
  • She was a Holocaust survivor.
  • She wrote the law that legalized abortion in France.
  • She became the first woman president of the European parliament.
  • Her name was Simone Veil née Jacob and she changed the world of reproductive rights for women forever.

Simone Veil’s Journey

At the age of 48, Simone Veil wrote the law that legalized abortion in France and advanced women’s reproductive rights throughout Europe. Before abortion was made legal in France, women would get abortions abroad or they would resort to clandestine procedures that often led to their death or lifelong injuries. But the courage and brilliance of Simone Veil did was not handed to her on a silver platter. Veil is a holocaust survivor and lost most of her family in her early years.

Simone Veil Philofem

Simone, her eldest sister Milou, her brother, and her parents were arrested in Nice, France in 1944, just after Simone, then 17 years old, had passed the baccalaureat examination. Simone, Milou, and their mother would spend a year in Auschwitz Birkenau.

Her mother died of typhus on March 1945, exactly a month before their last camp was liberated. Simone’s sister Milou died tragically 7 years later from a car accident. Mrs. Veil often felt she was bad luck to the people she loved. She never found a trace of her father and brother who were sent to a camp in Estonia. She lost most of her dignity during that haunting period and she would strive to restore the dignity of women through her career as a politician and minister.

“I found myself thrown into a universe of death, humiliation and barbarism. I was still haunted by the images, the odors, the screams, the humiliation, the blows and the sky, ashen with the smoke from the crematoriums.” One day, she caught the eye of a young polish woman who helped run the Bergen-Belsen camp. She said that Simone was too “pretty to die there” and so she found her a job in an SS kitchen. That gesture prevented Simone from dying of hunger as so many did at that time. She worked there for a couple of months until that camp was liberated by the British in the Spring of 1945.

When she returned home to her extended, it felt like an out-of-body experience. People expected to live on as if nothing had happened in the camp. No one wanted to believe the atrocities of camps. She even people being surprised that she made it out alive. “It must not have been that bad if she survived it,” she overheard some people say. Six months after returning home, she decided to enroll in the prestigious French law institute, Science Po.

I no longer knew how to write or how to read. I had to re-educate myself and re-learn everything.

During the first weeks, she could only sleep on the floor as she was no longer used to soft mattresses. People around her were uncomfortable talking about the rumored atrocities in the camps so she could only confide in her sister and the few friends she made at Auschwitz.

In February of 1946, she met her husband, Antoine Weil during a ski trip. They fell in love and got married roughly 8 months later. She gave birth to their first son in 1947. Simone was barely 20 years old and she was very clear on pursuing a real career. At first, the young Veil family focused on Antoine’s academic studies: he was expected to be the principal breadwinner after all. Yet, Mrs. Veil stayed determined to continue her studies at some point. As soon as her husband completed his graduate school, Simone returned to school to finish her law degree.

“I got married at a very young age, barely a year after returning home from deportation, and it was not easy to study at the same time but it was very important for me. I remember what my mother had taught me and how she had suffered from her financial dependence on my father.”

Finding Love in Law

Her husband initially discouraged her from becoming a lawyer but she won. They agreed she would become a magistrate. A less demanding career and one that would still satisfy her thirst for justice. It was her second greatest victory.

Independence for women represents first and foremost their psychological and economical independence.

She worked incessantly for women to take their place in society in places where women were rarely accepted. Throughout her various public discourses, she encouraged women to get their education and to find a profession they found interesting enough to justify the sacrifices they would have to make to sustain both work and family life.

Life in the French Assembly

Abortion had been illegal and prosecuted in France since the Napoleonic era in 1810. A woman of the name of Marie-Louise Giraud was guillotined in 1943 for practicing clandestine abortions. Although the death penalty for abortion was abolished after the war, it was still heavily prosecuted.

On the historic day of Nov. 26, 1974, Madame Simone Veil rose in front of the French Assembly filled with men to give a speech presenting her law to legalize abortion in France. The project remained controversial for months. She had been named the French minister for Health under the presidency of Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, the President of the Republic at the time. Her law also expanded the availability of contraception: the pill would now be reimbursed by social security.

We can no longer suffer to let clandestine buses and trains full of women on their way to get abortions abroad.

In her infamous speech, she calmly proclaims: “Abortion must remain an exception. No woman resorts to abortion with joy in her heart. You just have to listen to women. It is a trauma and will always be a trauma for them. “

On 29 novembre 1974, à 3 o’clock in the morning, Simone Veil won her fight for the women of France. The law passed with 284 votes versus 189 votes against the law.
Her major argument was not that abortion should become a human right but rather that the decision should return to the woman rather than belong to the state.
She also presented the necessity for a more democratic access to contraception so that women may not have to resort to abortion. She pointed out that one cannot contest abortion as a failure but that the government could not longer turn away from the illegal 300,00 abortions that plagued France each year.

“Life has taught me that progress always wins over time. The process might be long and slow, but I always trust it.”

Throughout the months of consulting religious authorities, doctors, the senate, the assembly, the lawmakers, she found out that men were more antagonistic towards contraception than they were against abortion. Contraception sacralized the freedom of women while clandestine abortion slaughtered them.

Veil received thousands of hateful letters and personal attacks on her family, often drenched in anti-semitism and vile insults. Her assistant destroyed the abominable letters but she later regretted them doing so. She thought: “It was a mistake to destroy these letters; we must preserve that type of testimonial to show what some people are capable of doing, and to remind humanity that societal reforms are always conducted in pain.” Several times, she would return home only to see Swastika crosses on her building walls in Paris. She often felt isolated in her fights but nevertheless, she found herself surrounded with influential allies that she never expected. She didn’t let the hatred second-guess herself: she knew where she was going and did not stop until she got there.

“What we can regret to this day, is that the number of abortions be as significant as it is today and that women didn’t have broader access to contraception.”

European Parliament

On June 17, 1979, she became the first woman president of the European Parliament.

Society should take into consideration the aspirations and needs of women without favoriting the masculine perspective on their rights.

She was gentle and even though she saw the most harrowing things in Auschwitz and lost both her parents, her brother, and later on her older sister, she chose to stay gentle, to become a force for justice and protection of the ones who couldn’t fend for themselves. She kept her dignity and humility to serve women, no matter who they were. She felt a true solidarity with women all of her life:
“I don’t have the soul of an activist/militant but I feel very feminist, very solidarity with women no matter who they are…I feel safer with women…maybe it’s because of my deportation? In the camps, their help was disinterested, generous…unlike the help of men…And so the resistance of the so-called weaker sex was even greater.”

She was gentle and even though she saw the most harrowing things in Auschwitz and lost both her parents, her brother, and later on her older sister, she chose to stay gentle, to become a force for justice and protection of the ones who couldn’t fend for themselves. She kept her dignity and humility to serve women, no matter who they were. She felt a true solidarity with women all of her life:
“I don’t have the soul of an activist/militant but I feel very feminist, very solidary with women no matter who they are…I feel safer with women…maybe it’s because of my deportation? In the camps, their help was disinterested, generous…unlike the help of men…And so the resistance of the so-called weaker sex was even greater.”

She radiated the duty to protect human dignity.

Simone Veil visiting Auschwitz

All women, whatever may be their political and philosophical inclinations, have the power to move society when they support each other.

-Simone Veil

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