The recent death of Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor who as French Health Minister in the centrist Giscard d’Estaing government, was the sponsor of a liberalizing French abortion law, and went on to be the first President of the European Parliament, called forth predictable obituaries from today’s feminists and liberals.
But Veil deserves better, for her rhetorical style was a model of tolerance and civility which rendered the changes in French abortion law much less divisive and controversial and much wiser than those imposed by judicial ukase in the United States. The French law, though liberalized further by the left-wing Hollande government since the statute she advocated in 1974, still requires a certificate of two physicians and findings of extreme consequences for mother or child for abortions after the twelfth week of pregnancy. In this, it is typical of European legislation; the United States, by judicial fiat, is the only nation substantially permitting abortion on demand in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.
In urging the 1975 law, Veil decried the consequences of an existing ban on abortion that was generally not observed by the French: “It is the respect that citizens have for the law and thus the authority of the State that have come into question. . . surgeons break the law and let it publicly be known, welfare departments…provide information, charter trips abroad are openly organized. She called it, “a state of chaos and anarchy that cannot go on.”
She added that abortion was “the last resort for situations that are hopeless–-how can we accept it and keep it as the exception without society appearing to encourage it?”
“A woman who remains responsible for her action will be more inclined to reconsider than one who feels that the decision has been taken for her by other people,” she urged. Veil’s law contemplated a physician’s advice about “the medical risks of terminating a pregnancy and the risks of premature births of future children,” as well as consultation with a welfare organization to advise that “they can give birth both freely and anonymously in hospital and that the adoption of the child may be one solution.”
In addition, “Information about birth control (which is the best method of dissuading her from abortion) seems so important to us that we have made it an obligation, on pain of administrative closure, for the establishments where abortions are performed.”
The statute also provided for an eight-day delay period (since repealed) “to make the woman understand that this is not a normal or banal act but a serious decision that cannot be taken without first fully considering the consequences and which should be avoided at all costs…it would be dangerous to expose the woman to the intensive physical and psychological risks of terminating a pregnancy at the end of the tenth week following conception.”
Abortions could only be performed by doctors “but it goes without saying that no doctor or medical auxiliary will ever be bound to participate,” and “for the sake of the woman’s safety, only in a hospital environment, public or private.” The hospitals then were required to derive no more than 25 percent of their revenue from abortions, thus discouraging both propaganda and profiteering and hostile demonstrations.
“The government will show the same firmness about not allowing abortions to produce substantial profits,” with the statute regulating advertising. Moreover, “when we know that dentistry, non-mandatory vaccinations and prescription glasses are not or are only nominally reimbursed by the healthcare system, how could it be acceptable to reimburse a termination of pregnancy,” which “society tolerates but which it will not encourage?…If the law no longer forbids abortion, it does not confer a right to abortion…abortion is a failure when it is not a tragedy.
She concluded: “Young generations often surprise us. Let us trust them to preserve the supreme value of life.”
The later changes in French abortion law rendering abortions fully funded by the healthcare system, allowing them on-demand up to the 12th week of pregnancy and limiting anti-abortion propaganda have been undertaken in a different spirit. But Veil’s speech to the French National Assembly on November 26, 1974 (and reprinted as an appendix to her memoir), provides a model of how a society composed of people of different views should discuss and resolve explosive issues, with deference to the competing values on both sides, and with respect for the role of public discussion and the power of legislative assemblies.
The writer, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of The Common Law Tradition: A Collective Portrait of Five Legal Scholars (Transaction Books), among other works.