simone veil, abortion, french
Simone Veil was a voice of clarity and unwavering courage, presenting a woman's voice in a difficult world

Simone Veil And Abortion – A Woman’s Voice In A Man’s World

Simone Veil (1927 – 2017)

“Abortion is a drama and will always remain a drama”

Simone Veil will be remembered as the health minister who gave women throughout France the right to abortion, as well as being the first woman to become president of the European Parliament. She represented the voice of women in a man’s world. Political figures who have had a profound influence on society are few and far between, and she belongs with the very best of them.

The “Loi Veil” (the Veil Law), that was voted by the French Assembly on 17th January 1975, made abortion legal. Up to then, women had to suffer the hardship and risks of clandestine abortion practices, or travel to England if they could afford to.

I say it with all my conviction: abortion must remain the exception, the ultimate recourse for situations without a way-out. But how to tolerate it without it losing this character of exceptionalism, without society appearing to encourage it? I would like first of all to make you share a conviction of a woman – I’m sorry to do it in front of this Assembly that is almost exclusively made up of men: no woman resorts to abortion light-heartedly. You only have to listen to the women. It is always a drama and will always remain a drama. This is why, if the project which is presented to you takes into account the existing de facto situation, if it admits the possibility of a termination of pregnancy, it is to control it and, as much as possible, to dissuade the woman from it.  –  Simone Veil, 26/11/1974

The repercussion that the adoption of the law had on women cannot be underestimated. On a French radio station, I heard a 38-year-old-woman, who recalled how she felt when she became pregnant at the age of 20. “Without the Loi Veil, I wouldn’t have been able to make the most of my life”, she explained. Now, mother-of-two, she also admitted that when she gave birth to her first child, she was thinking about the courage that Simone Veil had shown, in helping women become the true “owners” of their bodies.

Northern Ireland is avoiding the question of abortion

In still describing the right to abortion as “unlawful” – legislation dating from 1861 – Northern Ireland is more than half a century behind the times, when it comes to women’s rights. Similar attempts to restrict abortion rights were delivered a crushing blow elsewhere in Europe, specifically in Poland. The situation for Northern Irish women was somewhat alleviated this week, when Parliament passed an amendment to the Queen’s speech, allowing women to travel to England for an abortion to be carried out by the NHS, and paid for by it. This makes abortion cheaper, but not absolutely free of charge, since they would still have to pay for travel expenses, accommodation and after-care. Abortion is legal in England up to 24 weeks under the Abortion Act 1967. However, if there is a substantial risk to the woman’s life or foetal abnormalities, there is no time limit.

In refusing to amend the legislation on abortion, Northern Ireland is refusing to take into account the morality and needs of present-day society. In particular, it is denying women the right to have the final say on what happens to their bodies, in a highly stressful situation. In allowing abortions to take place in England, the Northern Irish executive is avoiding the question of amending the legislation, and choosing instead to let its women bear the entire brunt of a draconian law that few will find defensible. Thus, in addition to ignoring the additional emotional suffering of having to undergo an already deeply disturbing operation away from home.

The question reflects the state of society in which it is posed, moulding with its movements and its evolution.  It would be against the natural movement of mankind, not to face the question, in an attempt not to find a definitive answer, but a reasoned and present-day answer. – Simone Veil, 26/11/1974

simone veil, abortion
For American women, although the case of Roe v. Wade gave them the right to an abortion in 1973, it would continue to be an uphill battle for the following decade. Image: Protestors fighting for a right to safe abortion in 1980 / Source: CNN.com

Are all abortions morally justifiable?

Abortion carries with it extremely complex and emotional reactions, including moral and religious dilemmas that are often conflicting with the deepest wishes of those concerned. An abortion is nothing less than an excruciatingly painful decision, taken freely – but only after meticulous and conscious deliberation. However, this decision, while in one view an exercise of freedom of choice, also does force a woman to cut herself away from a growing human relationship that no-one else can even begin to understand and feel – the relationship between a mother and her unborn child – irrespective of the circumstances of the pregnancy.

Defending abortion is hard if it is considered as the termination of the life of another individual. We can argue for ever at what stage an embryo or foetus is considered to be a human life that we cannot destroy. There are arguments both ways, and I cannot decide what the right answer is. Some may argue that it would be an easier argument to win if we can make sure that we can cater for the unwanted babies, when they do finally come into this world. But that would also leave us with potentially distressing situations of mothers who later regret their decisions – knowing that their child might be still alive – , and children wanting to find out the truth concerning their origin. In the meantime, who are we to judge the mothers, who are, in fact, the real victims of their decision? Who are we to pass sentence on the severance of the most sacred biological bond that exists in nature – that between a mother and her unborn child – a bond that defines our future?

The two biggest issues that are relevant when concerning abortion comprise criteria concerning the foetus/unborn child, and the reasons given by a pregnant woman for wanting to terminate the pregnancy. The actual timeline concerning the termination of a pregnancy that would be morally acceptable is subject to endless and heated arguments between those for and against abortion, and will not be dealt with here. Instead, I would like to stay within the vision that Simone Veil had at the time when she presented the bill that eventually became law.

In the years that followed the implementation of Simone Veil’s law on abortion, important modifications were made. In 1982, all fees related to abortion were reimbursed by the French state. On 26th November 2014, the National Assembly voted for a “resolution reaffirming the basic right to the termination of pregnancy in France and Europe”. Simone Veil, however, did not consider abortion as an inherent right to be used callously. She insisted that it must remain an exception. Of her own law, she declared that, “If it does not prohibit any more, it does not create any rights to abortion”. The notion of “distress” no longer serves as a pre-requisite for abortion, as it was then. Applying today’s law, the same rights apply to a woman whose pregnancy causes real suffering, as to one whose pregnancy just doesn’t suit her. Is this morally justifiable? You may think what you want to, I just couldn’t possibly comment.

Simone Veil

b. 13th July 1927 – d. 30th June 2017

About George Suchett-Kaye

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George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.

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4 comments

  1. “no woman resorts to abortion light-heartedly”. Now is that really true? Every single time? In 1975, there were a reported 33,454 abortions in France; in 2015, 203,463*. That gigantic increase over the decades I find impossible to reconcile with any claim that each abortion is for a very good reason, such as the mental or physical health of the mother. I’m no religious pro-lifer, being a lefty-liberal-secular humanist, but the arguments for freely available abortion don’t always gel with me. No rights for the unborn foetus/baby at all? It’s OK to abort a female because your culture rewards mothers of males? Just don’t fancy having a child – or not one with a detected non-life-threatening disability? Perhaps if the Loi Veil had been in force around the time of Loi’s conception, she might not have been around to help it pass.

    *http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/abortion/ab-france.html

  2. And please excuse my inexcusable error: final sentence should read “the time of Veil’s conception…” Never type angry!

    • The quote is from Veil’s speech at the French Assemblée in 1974. She wanted abortion to be legal but also not to be an acquired right. If you read the last paragraph I also pose the question of the morality of “easy” abortions. In my opinion, abortion should be one of the hardest things a woman has to go through. For Simone Veil, abortion must remain a one-off (“une exception”) if it it the only solution.

      • “abortion should be one of the hardest things a woman has to go through” doesn’t tie in with the result of the liberalisation of abortion laws, nor with how most feminist activists seem to want it to be. I’m not sure I agree either that it’s impossible for non-mothers to understand or empathise with a woman’s feelings towards her unborn child. Whether it is or not, that’s no reason for the rest of us to be denied a say in the debate.

        I’m not coming down on one side or another. What disturbs me is the assumption amongst so-called progressivists, humanists et al – which I think I belong to – that to be firmly pro-abortion rights is no longer a matter of debate, it is purely the woman’s right to choose and that is it. No; the moral and philosophical questions have not been resolved now any more than they were before the 1967 Abortion Act. When does a foetus or baby become human with the right to life? From my perspective, I see a great dissonance between the wish to save lives in situations such as the death penalty or working against child poverty, and the wish to enable women to abort their unborn entity for what has become, undeniably, many reasons that I can’t support.

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