Four years after her passing, we recount the life and accomplishments of Simone Veil, who is still a role model for women in France and should be acknowledged worldwide.
The Woman Post | Valentina Ibarra
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Simone Veil was born in Nice, France to a Jewish family. When the Nazi regimen took force, her family split and lived using false identities, but it was not enough to protect themselves from the holocaust. When Simone was 16-years-old, she was arrested and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, just after finishing her secondary education.
Simone survived by lying about her age, which allowed her to work in the labor camp and not be sent to the gas chambers. At the beginning of 1945, she was sent to the death march, but the camp was liberated before she was killed. Her parents and brother did not survive. In her 2004 book, she said that in the camps women helped each other unselfishly, a thing that did not happen with men. Also, she usually feels more at ease, closer, influenced, and sensed solidarity with women.
After the war, Simone moved to Paris, where she studied law and political science at Sciences Po University. When she graduated, her life was dedicated to public service focused on women. While working in the Penitentiary, she improved the conditions and treatment of female inmates. Later, as the Director of Civil Affairs, she fought for adoption rights, dual parental control for legal matters, and support for single mothers and their children.
But her most important work came in 1974 when she was appointed Minister of Health, becoming the second woman to get a ministry rank in the French government. From her position, she got to legalize abortion, permitting women to receive on request until the tenth week. The law has changed over time offering more weeks and putting the costs on the social security system, but it was the beginning of a needed change. According to Anne Gompel, Head of Gynaecology Endocrinology at Cochin Hospital in Paris, male doctors would punish the women who survived after an illegal abortion by performing curettage without anesthesia. And without Veil, Gompel says it could have taken at least 10 years to legalize the procedure in the country.
The discussion over the now-called “Veil Law” was not an easy one. Simone suffered from constant attacks, including antisemitism remarks. She was yelled at in the streets and even got swastikas plastered in her building. During the political discussion, a member of the parliament asked her if she would agree with embryos being sent to ovens, referring to the concentrations camps of the nazi regimen. But even with all the awful attacks, the law was passed and abortion was decriminalized.
It is important to remark that during her time as health minister she also got better conditions for women in other aspects. For example, an expansion of the health coverage, stipends for childcare, and maternity benefits. Then, two decades later she returned to her position as health minister, from 1993 to 1995, and there introduced measures to help HIV patients. Between these two periods, she was elected the first woman president of the European Parliament.
Without a doubt, her life was full of accomplishments that secured better conditions for women in France. Because of that, when she died at 89 in 2017, the government decided to give her the honor to be buried in the Pantheon. More than 70 important figures of the country reside there, like Voltaire and Victor Hugo, but only five -including Simone- are women. Her impact transcends her death as she can still inspire women with her phenomenal work fighting for their rights.