While the rest of the world was stewing with indignant rage—and justifiably so—over Donald Trump’s latest display of crass misogyny via a Twitter outburst of vulgar insults directed at television journalist Mika Brzezinski, France paid its respects to one of its enduring icons of women’s rights.
The country mourned the loss of Simone Veil, 89, a Holocaust survivor, a lawyer, a militant feminist, a former health minister and the first woman to be elected president of the European Parliament, as well as a member of the august Académie Française. All of France held her in great regard, frequently figuring in surveys among the most admired people in the country. French president Emmanuel Macron called her life “an exemplary inspiration.”
Surviving Auschwitz—with her prisoner number tattooed on her arm—would be enough of an accomplishment on its own, but Veil went on to champion the passage of a number of laws that respected and enshrined women’s reproductive rights. In 1973, she campaigned for the liberalization of contraception, resulting in the Pill becoming accessible to all women in France and reimbursable through the social security system.
Her greatest legacy, it could be argued, is the passage of a landmark law known as the Veil Law, which legalized abortion in France in 1975. It signaled the victory of women’s rights as well as secularism—laïcité, as the policy establishing the absolute neutrality of the state with respect to religious doctrine is known—in a France that was then still predominantly Catholic.
Her obituary in The New York Times recalled the divisive and poisonous atmosphere that engulfed the country as the bill was debated before the National Assembly passed it into law in November 1974 by a vote of 284 to 189. Veil received her share of vitriol from opponents of the law, with accusations of “murderer” and “monster,” much like the supporters of our own RH Bill continue to experience. There were even unkind and even exaggerated digs at her own past as a concentration camp prisoner under the Nazis: “Madame Minister, do you want to send children to the ovens?”
Veil justified her stance. “I say this with total conviction: Abortion should stay an exception, the last resort for desperate situations. How, you may ask, can we tolerate it without it losing the character of an exception—without it seeming as though society encourages it? 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.”
Which is exactly what the pro-lifers fail to understand about those who support pro-choice. It has always been about choices and the right to make those choices, not about having some kind of license to copulate and terminate at will. There is the persistent misogynistic and grossly exaggerated myth of women so ready to cavalierly risk pregnancy because they have convenient access to abortion clinics. Rarely is abortion a simple decision to make, whether it’s an accidental pregnancy after a one-night stand, an unplanned pregnancy after a couple decides their family is complete, or an unwanted pregnancy following rape or sexual assault.
Fortunately, I have never had to face that predicament, but I know people who would have considered abortion should the child they were carrying be diagnosed with fetal disabilities such as Down Syndrome. And I do recall the trepidation I felt before undergoing an amniocentesis as a precautionary measure during my first pregnancy and briefly wondered whether I would in fact terminate my pregnancy in the event of severe birth defects being detected. I was momentarily torn, I must confess, but thankfully the question turned out to be moot. Yet I was glad to be living then in a country that allowed abortion. Even if I most likely would not have chosen to terminate my pregnancy, the knowledge that I had the option to do so without being judged was, to some degree, reassuring.
However, I did have friends in marriages wherein one partner was adamant about termination and the other was just as determined to keep the baby despite any fetal complications. And I also had female friends in relationships who felt they were too young to be pregnant no matter how much they loved their boyfriends. Even taking the morning-after pill for some of them was a difficult decision to make, but again, they were grateful that they had legal access to that, and an abortion if they felt it was absolutely necessary. It’s clearly a moral, emotional and psychological minefield that is extremely difficult to navigate, and it’s not a state of anguish I would wish on anyone.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.