On January 17, 1975, France enacted the Veil Law, which decriminalized abortion in certain circumstances. The law is named for Simone Veil, a driving force behind the law (which is itself a continuation of the Neuwirth Law, which legalized contraception in 1972.)
Under the Veil Law, medical termination of pregnancy can be performed according to very specific and well-defined conditions:
- Will of the mother
- Serious and incurable disease in the extent of current knowledge of science
- Authorization of experts
- No other alternatives
The Act also legalizes abortion, which can be performed under the sole control of the mother within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Later-term abortions are also performed in cases where the woman’s health is seriously threatened, or in cases of serious fetal malformation.
The Veil Law was passed during a heightened atmosphere in the country around reproductive rights. On April 5, 1971, the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published the manifesto of the 343, a declaration signed by 343 women admitting to having had an abortion, thereby exposing themselves to criminal prosecution. The manifesto, which was also known as the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts” or the “Manifesto of the 343 Bitches,” inspired another one: the manifesto of the 331, a petition published in February 1973 in Le Nouvel Observateur, and signed by 331 doctors claiming to perform abortions, despite the ban on France law.
Almost forty years after the law passed, what do women, doctors, and the French think about abortion now?
To sufficiently answer that would require a whole other article, so I will just tell a little story about a French woman who decided on a medical career.
“It cannot happen to me”
A few years ago, I spoke with a young female medical student. This is our rough dialogue:
- So, you do medical studies? Do you want to specialize?
- Yes, but I do not know in what area.
- Why not gynecology? France will have a shortage of gynecologists …
- Yes … Oh no … I cannot because I would have to perform abortions.
- Ah, you’re against abortion?
- Of course!
- In all cases?
- That’s to say?
- Uh, for example, if a woman is raped and must subsequently abort.
- I know it’s horrible if this happens to a woman, really horrible, but whatever happens she has to keep her baby.
- And … if this woman is you?
The young student looked at me, shocked.
- These things cannot happen to me.
Even today I wonder what did she mean: She was a “well-behaved young lady”? She was convinced that God is there to ensure that she will never be raped?
We must recognize that a threat still hangs over women. Many injustices strike men, women, and children. But the denial of abortion affects in the first place the woman and her body. I wish I had told her, “You know, feminists are neither for nor against abortion; they are just for choice, the right to choice, and for that, they never killed because they have a profound respect for dignity and human life.”