Simone Veil’s Speech Before the French National Assembly on the Legalization of Abortion (November 26, 1974)
Translated by Clara Clymer
Forty-seven years ago, on November 26, 1974, Simone Veil spoke before the French National Assembly to defend a bill in favor of legalizing abortion in France. As the French Minister of Health, she presented the cabinet’s position to the legislative body, composed of 481 men and 9 women, and delivered what has become one of the most famous speeches in France and a huge step forward for women’s rights. Simone Veil’s remarks began the legislative discussion on abortion, and after days of debate and personal attacks on Simone Veil herself, the bill was passed into law. It is now known as the “Veil Law.”
Born in Nice in 1927 to a Jewish family, Simone Veil survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camps, returning to France in 1945. Over the course of her career, she was an adamant defender of both women’s and human rights, liberalizing contraception, instituting improved healthcare and maternity benefits for women, increasing rights for prison inmates, and helping disadvantaged members of society. Upon her death in 2017, Simone Veil was buried in the Pantheon.
Note from the translator: As a second-year student pursuing my Master of Arts in Translation (French/English) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), I chose to translate this speech within the framework of my practicum course. This project has been scaffolded by my professors and other writing professionals, and its significance transcends 1970’s France to find relevance in the present day.
The speech transcript in French can be found here.
Simone Veil: “Resorting to abortion brings no woman joy.” (November 26, 1974)
Mr. President, Ladies, Gentlemen. I stand before you today, as Minister of Health, as a woman, and as a non-parliamentarian, to propose to this nation’s elected officials a significant change in abortion legislation. Please know that I do so with a deep sense of humility given the challenges of this issue and how profoundly it resonates with every French man and woman on the most personal level, and fully aware of the weight of the responsibilities we shall assume together.
However, it is also with the strongest conviction that I will defend a bill that the entire Government has considered and deliberated on at length, a bill that, in the words of the French President, aims to, “end a situation of disorder and injustice and respond to one of the most challenging issues of our time with a measured and humane solution.”
The Government is able to put forth such a bill today thanks to those of you—and there are many of you from all backgrounds—who have strived over the course of several years to propose a new law more attuned with the social consensus and state of affairs in our country.
It is also thanks to Mr. Messmer’s cabinet, which took up the mantle to draft a bold, innovative piece of legislation for your consideration. Each one of us remembers Mr. Jean Taittinger’s truly remarkable and stirring presentation of the matter.
And finally, it is thanks to the special commission, overseen by Mr. Berger, which allowed many deputies to hear, over myriad hours, representatives of all views, in addition to the leading figures qualified on this issue.
Yet there are those who still wonder if a new law is really necessary. For some, the matter is simple. We have a punitive law; it simply needs to be applied. Others question why Parliament must address these problems now. It is no secret that since its inception, and especially since the beginning of the century, the law has always been strict, but it has rarely been enforced.
What has changed thus compelling us to take action? Why not continue as we always have, and apply the law only in exceptional circumstances? Why sanction a criminal practice, and thereby risk encouraging it? Why enact legislation to compensate for laxity in our society, favoring individual selfishness instead of reviving a morality of civic duty and rigor? Why risk exacerbating the alarming decline of our birth rate, instead of advancing a generous and constructive family policy, which would enable all mothers to give birth to and raise the children whom they have conceived?
Because everything indicates that the question lies elsewhere. Do you believe this cabinet, and the previous one, would have been committed to drawing up legislation and bringing it to you if they had believed another solution were still possible?
We have reached the point where the government can no longer evade its responsibilities regarding this matter. The evidence is everywhere: the studies and research carried out over the past several years, your commission’s hearings, and what is happening in other European countries. And most of you feel it; you know we can neither prevent illegal abortions nor hold criminally liable all women who break the law.
So why should we not continue to turn a blind eye to the situation? Because the current situation is wrong. I would even go so far as to call it deplorable and tragic.
The situation is wrong because the law is openly flouted, and even worse, ridiculed. When the discrepancy between the number of crimes committed and the number of crimes prosecuted reveals that there is no longer any enforcement of the law to speak of, citizens’ respect for the law, and consequently the State’s authority, is called into question.
When doctors, in their clinics, break the law and make it publicly known, when public prosecutors must consult the Ministry of Justice before prosecuting each case, when public social services provide women in distress with information to facilitate a termination of pregnancy, and when, to the same end, trips abroad are publicly arranged, even chartered, to this I say we are in a situation characterized by disorder and anarchy, which can no longer continue.
However, you might say, how could the situation have been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent, and why should we accept it? Why not enforce the law?
Because if doctors, if social workers, if even a number of private citizens take part in these illegal actions, it is because they feel compelled to do so. They find themselves confronted with the realities of situations that they cannot ignore, at times contrary to their personal convictions. Because when faced with a woman who has decided to terminate her pregnancy, they know that by denying her their counsel and support they are condemning her to the solitude and anguish of obtaining a procedure performed under the worst conditions that risks leaving her permanently scarred. They know that the same woman, if she has the financial means, if she knows how to get the information she needs, will travel to a neighboring country or even to one of certain clinics in France and will be able to end her pregnancy without incurring any risk or any penalty. And these are not necessarily the most immoral or the most reckless women. They number 300,000 each year. They are women with whom we interact each day, most of the time oblivious to their distress and tragedies.
We must stop this disorder. We must end this injustice. But how?
It is with the utmost conviction, I say: Abortion should remain the exception, the last resort for situations with no other option. But how do we condone abortion without it becoming commonplace, without society seeming to encourage it?
First of all, I would like to share with you a woman’s conviction—please excuse me for doing so before this Assembly composed almost exclusively of men: Resorting to abortion brings no woman joy. One has only to listen to women.
It is always a tragedy and will always be a tragedy.
For this reason, this bill before you takes into account the current state of affairs and acknowledges the possibility of terminating a pregnancy precisely in order to regulate such termination and, as much as possible, to dissuade the woman from doing so.
As such, we feel that we have responded to the conscious and subconscious desires of every woman who finds herself in this agonizing situation, so aptly described and analyzed by some of the prominent individuals your special commission heard over the course of autumn 1973.
Currently, who takes care of women who find themselves in this distressing situation? The law not only condemns them to disgrace, shame, and solitude, but also to the anonymity and anguish of criminal proceedings. Pressured to conceal their situation, these women too often cannot find anyone who will listen to them, help them, or provide them with support and protection.
How many among those who currently oppose a possible change to the punitive law have ever tried to help these women in distress? How many have set aside what they see as impropriety and offered young, single mothers the understanding and moral support they so greatly needed?
I know such individuals exist, and I will refrain from generalizing. I am conscious of the efforts of those who, acutely aware of their responsibilities, do all within their power to enable these women to rise to the occasion of motherhood. We will support their endeavors; we call upon them to help us ensure the consultations with social services provided by the law.
But solace and help, when offered, are not always enough to dissuade. Certainly, the challenges women face are at times less serious than they perceive them to be. Some can even be mitigated and overcome; however, others remain such that some women feel forced into a situation that can only end in suicide, upheaval of their family stability, or misery for their children.
Alas! That is the most common reality, far more frequent than so-called abortions, “of convenience.” Were this not so, why is it that so many countries, one after another, have reformed their abortion laws and recognized that what used to be severely punished should now be legalized?
Accordingly, aware of an unacceptable situation for the State and injustice in the eyes of most, the Government has renounced the path of least resistance, the path of inaction. That would have been laxity. Assuming its responsibility, the Government is putting forth a bill that can address this issue, advancing a solution that is at once realistic, humane, and just.
Some will undoubtedly think our only consideration was the woman’s interests, that we prepared the bill through this one lens alone, with hardly any regard for societal or rather national interests, the unborn child’s father, and particularly, that unborn child.
I, in no way, think this is an individual matter concerning only the woman and not the nation. This is an issue of the utmost concern to the nation, but from various vantage points that do not all necessarily call for the same solutions.
It is certainly in the national interest that the French population be young and growing strongly. Would such a bill, adopted on the heels of a law liberalizing contraception, not risk bringing about a precipitous drop in our birth rate, which is already registering a concerning decline?
That situation is not new, nor is it unique to France; since 1965, every European country has seen a fairly steady decline in birth and fertility rates, regardless of their laws on abortion, or even, on contraception.
It would be foolish to seek out simple causes for such a broad phenomenon. A national-level explanation would fall short as this trend is a fact of civilization reflective of our current era, and moreover, driven by complex forces we struggle to comprehend.
Observations by demographers in many other countries provide no clear evidence of a correlation between a modification of abortion legislation and a change in birth rates and, especially, fertility rates.
It is true that the example of Romania seems to provide evidence to the contrary. When the Romanian government decided in late 1966 to reverse the non-punitive legislation adopted 10 years prior, a huge increase in the birth rate followed. However, what is left unsaid is that Romania subsequently saw an equally spectacular drop in its birth rate, and it must be noted that abortion was the main form of birth control in this country, where modern forms of contraception were nonexistent. In such a context, the abrupt introduction of restrictive legislation clearly explains the increased birth rate, which was transitory and remains the exception.
There is every indication that the bill’s passage will minimally impact the birth rate in France; after a period of possible short-term fluctuations, legal abortions would simply replace illegal ones.
While independent of the status of abortion laws, the drop in our birth rate is a worrisome trend the government has a pressing duty to address.
The French president will preside over one of the first advisory meetings on this issue, which will be devoted to examining all population issues in France and identifying ways to curb this trend, which does not bode well for the future of the country.
Regarding family policy, the Government has deemed this a separate issue from abortion legislation, and these two subjects should not be conflated in discussion of this legislation.
That being said, family policy is still a matter of great importance to the Government. Beginning Friday, the Assembly will be called upon to discuss a bill aimed at significantly increasing allowances for child care expenses and “orphan” benefits for children including those of single mothers. Furthermore, this bill will reform maternity benefits and the conditions for young families to obtain loans.
For my part, I am preparing to present various proposals to the Assembly. One among them aims to support working mothers by providing potential avenues to be eligible for social aid. Another seeks to improve the operation and financing of centers for mothers which take in young struggling mothers during their pregnancies and the first months of their children’s lives. I intend to make a special effort in the fight against infertility by eliminating copayments for all related consultations. Furthermore, I have asked Inserm to launch, beginning in 1975, a targeted research project on the problem of infertility, which leads so many couples to despair.
Together with the Minister of Justice, I will soon draw conclusions from the report that your colleague, Mr. Rivierez, the delegated Member of Parliament, has just drafted on adoption. In response to the wishes of the many people wanting to adopt a child, I have decided to establish a high council on adoption that will be responsible for submitting all useful suggestions on this matter to the Government. Finally, and above all, in a statement made by Mr. Durafour, the Government has publicly committed to begin negotiating an agreement on progress with family organizations in the coming weeks. We will work with family representatives to agree on the content of that agreement, based on proposals that will be submitted to the family advisory council over which I preside.
In reality, as all demographers highlight, the crucial element is changing the French public’s image of the ideal number of children per couple. This objective is infinitely complex, and we should not limit the abortion discussion to inevitably ad hoc government financial incentive policies.
Undoubtedly, for many of you, the second element absent from this bill is the father. We can all agree that a woman should not make the decision to end a pregnancy alone, but rather with her husband or partner. For my part, I hope that, in practice, this is always the case, and I agree with the commission’s proposal of a modification to this effect. However, as the commission very well understands, this is not something we can legislate.
Finally, is not the third element absent from this bill the promise of life that the woman carries within her? I refuse to engage in the scientific and philosophical debates which the commission’s hearings proved are an insolvable matter. No one now disputes that, from a strictly medical perspective, an embryo definitely carries all the potentialities of the human being to come. But this is still a phase of becoming, and many unforeseen events will have to be surmounted before the embryo, a delicate link in the transmission of life, comes to term.
We must remember that, according to World Health Organization studies, out of a hundred instances of conception, forty-five result in spontaneous termination during the first two weeks of gestation. Moreover, out of a hundred pregnancies, at the beginning of the third week, a quarter never come to term, simply due to natural causes. Our only certainty is that a woman only becomes fully aware she is carrying a human being who will one day become her child when she feels inside of her the first stirrings of this life. Except for women who hold a deep religious conviction, this gap between what is only a potential for which the woman does not yet experience a deep feeling and what is a child from the moment of birth onward explains why some who would respond with horror at the monstrous prospect of infanticide, resign themselves to considering the possibility of abortion.
When faced with a loved one whose future would be irreparably damaged, whom among us has not felt that principles must sometimes be compromised.
It would not be the same – obviously – if this crime were truly seen as analogous to other crimes. Some of the most vocal opponents to passing this bill accept that in reality, the law is not enforced; they would even object less vehemently to a vote on legislation limited to suspending criminal prosecutions. They themselves thus view the termination of pregnancy as a crime of a special kind or, in any case, a crime requiring a specific solution.
The Assembly will not mind my having taken the time to address this issue. You all feel herein lies an essential point, without a doubt the core of the debate. It was necessary to raise this matter before proceeding to examine the content of the bill itself.
In preparing the bill put forth today, the Government has established a threefold objective: create a law that is actually enforceable, create a law that is dissuasive, and create a law that is protective.
This threefold objective explains the structure of the bill.
Firstly, a law that is enforceable.
A close examination of the definition of conditions under which a termination of pregnancy would be authorized, and the respective consequences, reveals insurmountable contradictions.
If these conditions are narrowly defined—for example, as a serious threat to a woman’s physical or mental health, or even cases of rape or incest as confirmed by a judge—it is clear that when these conditions are actually met, the change in legislation will fall short of its objective because the proportion of terminations of pregnancy for such reasons is small. Moreover, assessing possible cases of rape or incest would raise virtually unsolvable issues of evidence in an appropriate timeframe for the situation.
If, on the contrary, the conditions are broadly defined—for example, as a risk to mental health or psychological balance, or difficult financial or mental conditions—it is clear that the doctors or the commissions responsible for determining if these conditions are met would have to make their decisions based upon criteria too vague to be objective.
Under such systems, in practice, doctors or commissions grant authorization to carry out the termination of a pregnancy based only upon their personal views on abortion; it is therefore those women least equipped to find the most compassionate doctor or the most lenient commission who will once again find themselves in an impossible situation.
To avoid this injustice, many countries grant authorization almost automatically, rendering such proceedings a mere formality. All the while, a certain number of women are left on their own, those who do not want to be humiliated by a proceeding they feel puts them on trial.
We are asking the legislature to change the existing laws and end illegal abortions most often sought by women who, for social, economic, or psychological reasons, feel they are in such a distressing situation that they have decided to terminate their pregnancy under any conditions. This is why the Government prefers to abandon a more or less ambiguous and more or less vague approach and, instead, confront reality, recognizing that, ultimately, the final decision can only be made by the woman.
As dissuasion is the second objective of the bill, would it not be contradictory to leave the decision to the woman?
There is no paradox in arguing that a woman who bears the whole responsibility of her act will be more hesitant to carry it out than a woman who feels that others have made the decision for her.
The Government has chosen a solution clearly indicating the woman’s responsibility because this course of action is fundamentally more likely to dissuade her than a third-party authorization, which would be or would quickly become a pretense.
What we must do is ensure that this woman does not bear this responsibility in solitude or in anguish.
While not instituting a procedure that would cause a woman to avoid it altogether, the bill provides for various consultations which will lead her to assess the weight of the decision she plans to make.
The doctor can play a major role here both by informing the woman about all of the now well-known medical risks associated with terminating a pregnancy, in particular the risk of premature future births, and by emphasizing the importance of contraception.
This duty of dissuasion and counseling is the privileged domain of the medical corps; I know I can rely on doctors’ experience and sense of humanity to establish, as part of the doctor-patient bond, the trusting and attentive dialogue that women seek, sometimes unintentionally.
The bill then provides for a consultation with a social services organization tasked with listening to the woman, or the couple when this is the case, allowing her to express her distress, helping her obtain financial aid, if this is the source of her distress, and making her aware of the reality of the obstacles that impede, or seem to impede, her welcoming a child into the world. It is during this consultation that many women will learn that they can anonymously give birth in a hospital free of charge, and that the possible adoption of their child can constitute a solution.
It goes without saying that our wish for these consultations is for them to be as personalized as possible and, in particular, that the organizations specializing in helping young women in difficulty can continue to welcome them and provide them with the assistance they need to decide against termination. These will, of course, all be one-on-one meetings, and clearly through their experience and understanding, these consultants can play a significant role in providing support likely to bring these women in distress to change their minds. Moreover, these consultations will present another opportunity to discuss with the woman both the matter of contraception and the importance of using contraceptive methods in the future so as to never again have to decide to end a pregnancy if she does not wish to have a child. We believe that providing this information on birth control—which is the best defense against abortion—is so crucial that we have planned to make it mandatory for the facilities performing pregnancy terminations, under penalty of administrative closure, and at their expense.
We have deemed these two consultations she will have, in addition to the mandatory eight-day waiting period, necessary to impress upon the woman that this is not a usual or banal act, but rather a serious decision which cannot be made without weighing the consequences, and one that should be avoided at all costs. Only after realizing this, and in the case of a woman set on her decision, can she terminate the pregnancy. However, medical professionals may perform this procedure only under strict medical safeguards for the woman. This is the bill’s third objective: Protection of the woman.
Firstly, we will only permit a pregnancy to be terminated early because beyond the end of the tenth week following conception, the physical and psychological risks, always present, pose too great a threat to allow the woman to be exposed to them.
Secondly, only a doctor may terminate a pregnancy, as is the rule in all countries that have changed their abortion legislation. But obviously, we will never compel a doctor or physician assistant to take part.
Finally, to increase the woman’s safety, we will only permit the procedure to take place in a hospital setting, public or private.
The Government deems compliance with these provisions essential, and noncompliance remains punishable under Article 317 of the penal code, the penalties set forth therein remaining in effect. In all honesty, such compliance entails getting much back in order, and the Government is committed to doing so. This will end practices which have recently received unfortunate publicity and can no longer be tolerated once women can legally terminate their pregnancies in truly safe conditions.
Similarly, the Government is resolved to firmly apply the new provisions which will replace those found in the 1920 law on propaganda and advertising. Contrary to what some are saying, the bill does not forbid providing information on the law and on abortion; it forbids the incitement of abortion by any means whatsoever since such incitement remains unacceptable.
Furthermore, the Government will show the same firmness in prohibiting exorbitant profits for terminations of pregnancy; fees and hospital costs may not exceed the limit set by price legislation. In the same vein, and to avoid the advent of abuses found in some countries, non-citizens will need to meet residency requirements for a pregnancy to be terminated.
Lastly, I would like to explain the Government’s decision, which some have criticized, regarding non-reimbursement by national health insurance for the cost of terminating a pregnancy.
When we consider that dental care, optional vaccinations, and corrective lenses are not, or are only very minimally, reimbursed by national health insurance, how could we justify reimbursing the termination of pregnancy? If we adhere to the general principles of national health insurance, this procedure, when not medically necessary, should not be covered. Should we make exceptions? We think not, because we deemed it necessary to highlight the seriousness of an act which should remain the exception, even if it sometimes causes a financial burden for women. We do, however, need to ensure that a lack of resources does not hinder a woman from seeking the termination of a pregnancy when this termination is necessary; as such, we have provided for medical assistance to those the most financially in need.
We also must clearly differentiate between contraception—which we should encourage by all means necessary when women do not wish to have a child and for which national health insurance reimbursement has recently been adopted—and abortion, which society tolerates, but must neither pay for nor encourage.
Rare is the woman who does not desire a child; maternity is part of her life’s accomplishments and those who have not experienced this happiness suffer profoundly as a result. Children once born are hardly ever rejected and, with their first smiles, bestow upon their mothers the greatest joy a woman can ever know. However, some women feel incapable, due to very serious difficulties confronting them at a particular moment in their lives, of providing the emotional balance and care that a child needs. This is when they do all they can to prevent having or keeping a child. And no one can stop them. However, these same women, several months later, their emotional or financial lives transformed, will be the first to want a child and might very well become the most attentive mothers. It is for those women that we want to end illegal abortions, to which they would otherwise turn, risking sterilization or being deeply scarred.
I am approaching the end of my speech. Intentionally, I have chosen to articulate the general philosophy of the bill rather than the details of its provisions, which we will examine at leisure during discussion of its articles.
I know a certain number among you deem that they cannot vote in good conscience in favor of this legislation, nor any law which would permit or legalize abortion.
To them, I hope I have at least convinced them that this bill is the fruit of honest and deep reflection on all of the facets of the issue, and that the Government has assumed the responsibility to submit it to Parliament only after carefully considering its immediate ramifications and future consequences for the nation.
I will provide them with one example as proof: exercising a highly exceptional legislative procedure, the Government proposes to limit this law’s application to five years. Thus, if during this period of time it appears that the law you have passed is no longer appropriate, given demographic changes or medical progress, Parliament will vote again in five years, taking into account this new information.
Some remain hesitant. They recognize the distress too many women experience and wish to come to their aid; they fear, however, the law’s impacts and consequences. To these people, I want to say that while the law is general and therefore abstract, it is created to be applied to individual situations that are often harrowing. While it no longer bans abortion, it does not create any right to it, and that, in the words of Montesquieu, “it is in the nature of human laws to be subject to all the accidents which can happen, and to vary in proportion as the will of man changes: on the contrary, by the nature of the laws of religion, they are never to vary. Human laws appoint for some good; those of religion for the best.”
It is in this spirit that over the last decade, the President of the Law Committee, with whom I had the honor of collaborating when he was Minister of Justice, has modernized and transformed our prestigious civil code. Some feared that by recognizing a new understanding of the family unit, we would contribute to its deterioration. This did not come to pass, and our country can pride itself on civil legislation that is now more just, more humane, and better adapted to the society in which we live.
I know the matter we are debating today concerns issues infinitely more serious and greatly more troubling to each individual’s conscience. But ultimately, it is also a societal issue.
Finally, I would like to leave you with these words: Over the course of discussion, I will defend this law, in the name of the Government, without second thoughts, and with all of my conviction. But the truth is, no one can experience deep satisfaction in defending such a law—the best possible, in my opinion—on such a subject. No one has ever disputed, and the Minister of Health least of all, the fact that abortion is a failure, if not a tragedy.
But we can no longer ignore the 300,000 abortions that, each year, scar women in this country, that flout our laws, and that humiliate or traumatize those who turn to this recourse.
History shows that the great debates which for a time divided the French people turned out, in hindsight, to be a necessary step in the creation of a new social consensus, one that forms part of our country’s tradition of tolerance and measure.
I am not one of those who fear the future.
The young generations surprise us sometimes in the ways in which they are different from us; we ourselves have raised them in a different way than we were raised. But this youth is brave, capable of enthusiasm and sacrifice, like previous generations. Let us place our trust in them to safeguard the supreme value of life.
Clara Clymer is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in Monterey, CA. She has previously written, edited, and translated speeches for French diplomats, transcribed accounts from Syrian refugees, published in Wendy Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria (HarperCollins, 2017), and taught English in Spain and France. An amateur travel blogger, she amuses her audience, possibly numbering in the double digits, with her adventures abroad: harrowing tales of missed trains and cultural faux pas, punctuated by a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. A Los Angeles native, she has also called Chicago and Paris home.