A celebrated civil servant, women’s rights figure and Holocaust survivor, Simone (Jacob) Veil (1927–2017) was the driving force behind French womens’ access to contraception and abortion in the twentieth century. As Health Minister between 1974 and 1979, Veil advanced what would come to be known as the Loi Veil, the 1975 law which legalized abortion.
Born into an atheist Jewish family in Nice in 1927, as a young teenager Simone Jacob (Veil) was separated from her family during the German occupation of France under the Vichy regime. The day after obtaining her baccalaureate in 1944, she was arrested by the Gestapo alongside her family and deported first to Drancy, then to Auschwitz, where she was separated from her father and brother, and finally to Bergen-Belsen. Her father, mother, and brother died in Nazi death camps in 1944 and 1945, while Simone and her two sisters survived until the camps were liberated and were reunited after the war. Within a year, Simone had enrolled in the law program at University of Paris, then the Institut d'études politiques, where she met her husband, Antoine Veil, with whom she had three children.
After practicing law for several years, Veil passed the national examination to become a magistrate of the French state in 1954 and began her career as a state official. Working first in the National Penitentiary Administration, then in Civil Affairs, by 1970 she had worked to improve incarcerated women’s rights as well as French women’s adoptive and parental rights and had become the secretary general of the Supreme Magistrate Council. Veil is best known for improving access to contraception with a 1974 law (the contraceptive pill had been legalized seven years earlier in 1967), followed by the fight to legalize abortion in 1975, which would become known informally as the Loi Veil. The campaign against the legalization of abortion came down aggressively on Simone Veil on the Parliament floor, as well as in public and at her home. Many of these attacks were personal and anti-Semitic, and were directed at Veil and her family. Despite these challenges, the right to abortion was written into French law in 1975 and Veil went on to work as a Member of the European Parliament between 1979 and 1993 before returning to work as Minister of Health, Social Affairs and the City in the 1990s. During this time, she advocated for women’s rights, disability rights, and the rights of HIV-positive individuals. Over the course of her career Veil was a staunch advocate for both the European project and for women and underrepresented groups.
Veil was recognized for her contributions to women’s health and to the European project with many honors, including the Legion d’honneur in 2016, and the year after her death in 2018, when she and her husband were interred in the Panthéon. Veil is just the fifth woman to be interred at the Panthéon.
For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources:Feminism in the 20th Century.
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