French feminist icon and Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil has been granted France’s highest honor: Burial in the Paris Pantheon.
The Pantheon houses the mortal remains of some of France’s greatest intellectual figures, such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and scientists Marie Curie and Louis Braille. Veil will become only the fifth woman laid to rest in the mausoleum, alongside 76 men.
Veil, who died just two weeks before her 90th birthday on June 30, 2017, championed a 1975 law that legalized abortion while she was serving as health minister of France. The “Loi Veil” still bears her name today, and she has called it her proudest accomplishment.
After leaving that post, Veil went on to become the first woman president of the European Parliament in 1979 and served in this role until 1982. The body of her husband, politician Antoine Veil, who died in 2013, will be moved to join hers in the Pantheon crypt. The Guardian newspaper hailed Veil as “the conscience of France.”
Veil was given a funeral ceremony with military honors at Les Invalides, the site of Napoleon’s tomb, and in a show of national esteem, French flags were adorned with black ribbons and European flags flew at half-mast. There, President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to her invincible spirit and afterward tweeted “May her example inspire our compatriots.”
In a statement, Macron said Veil’s life was an exemplary inspiration, underscoring her care for the most vulnerable members of society.
“Her uncompromising humanism, wrought by the horror of the camps, made her the constant ally of the weakest, and the resolute enemy of any political compromise with the extreme right,” the statement read.
Upon her passing, the French episcopal conference sent out a tweet saying: “We salute your greatness as a woman of state, your will, to fight for a fraternal Europe, your conviction that abortion is a drama,” a comment that elicited some perplexity from observers who thought the bishops should have made some mention to the lives lost because of Veil’s abortion advocacy.
In 1944, the 16-year-old Simone Jacob was deported together with her eldest sibling, Madeleine, and her mother to the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, while her father and brother were sent to a camp in a Baltic country and never heard from again. While Veil and her sister managed to survive the camp and were sent back to France after the war, their mother died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen camp.
Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who served as archbishop of Paris from 1981 to 2005, enjoyed a many-year friendship with Simone Veil, and reportedly “never reproached her for her laws on abortion and contraception.” Lustiger, himself a convert from Judaism to Catholicism, had also lost his mother to the Auschwitz death camp, leading him to a particular tenderness toward the Holocaust survivor who had been left as an orphan of the camps.
Some have credited President Giscard d’Estaing with a master stroke in sending Veil to the battle front for the legalization of abortion in France, since she was virtually untouchable as an Auschwitz survivor as well as a person known for her moderation and sobriety. He pulled her out of relative obscurity in 1974, appointing her personally as health minister.
“Whoever would oppose her would appear odious, if not inhuman,” one commentator noted, because she had been transformed by the media into an “untouchable icon.”
At the time the abortion legislation was passed, Veil asserted her conviction that abortion should always be a last resort.
“Abortion should stay an exception, the last resort for desperate situations,” she said. “How, you may ask, can we tolerate it without its losing the character of an exception — without it seeming as though society encourages it?”
The original Veil Law included a series of restrictions never found in U.S. abortion law after Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. For one, abortion could only be performed up until the tenth week of pregnancy, a far cry from U.S. abortion on demand for all nine months of pregnancy. Moreover, doctors were required by the law to inform women considering an abortion of the risks to their health and their future pregnancies, and to provide them with the names and addresses of adoption agencies along with information about the services they offer.
The Veil Law required that women show they were in a situation of “distress” in order to obtain an abortion, a condition that wasn’t lifted until 2014.
Despite Veil’s stated intentions of keeping abortion rare and exceptional, at present more than 200,000 abortions are performed each year in France. In 2016, there were fewer than 800,000 live births in the country, suggesting that more than 20 percent of all pregnancies in France end in abortion. The French birth rate in 2016 hit its lowest level in 40 years, well below replacement levels.
One Frenchman noted the irony that with 100 million killed barbarously in 100 years at the hands of the great tyrants of the 20th century — Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot — people were still able to celebrate the 7 million children killed before birth in France since the passage of the Veil Law.
When Veil was inducted into the prestigious Académie Française in 2010 (an event the French describe as “enthronement”), she manifested her perplexity at her nomination, since the ancient Académie had always been “the temple of the French language” while in her case the honor clearly had little or nothing to do with her literary talents, but seemed due rather to the symbol that she had necessarily become.
Veil’s reflection at the time has bearing on current affairs as well.
The well-coordinated petitions requesting Veil’s enshrinement in the Pantheon, which began circulating in France immediately upon her death, certainly bear witness to her popularity and the esteem in which she was held by the people of France.
Indeed, in 2010 a poll conducted by the Journal du Dimanche declared her to be the most popular woman in all of France, especially among women.
The figure of Simone Veil in France is reminiscent of Emma Bonino in Italy, a woman at the forefront of the battle to legalize abortion during the 1970s who was subsequently elevated to the role of Foreign Minister and later became a commissioner at the European level.
In February 2016 Pope Francis praised Bonino as one of Italy’s “forgotten greats,” comparing her to important historical figures such as Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman. Coincidentally, one newspaper ran a headline suggesting that Bonino had been inducted into “the pope’s Pantheon.”
Knowing Bonino to be a controversial figure, the pope said that she offered the best advice to Italy on learning about Africa, and admitted that she thinks differently from Catholics. “True, but never mind,” he said. “We have to look at people, at what they do.”
The Pantheon in which Veil is being interred was originally designed as a Catholic church, but the emblematic Parisian edifice had the ill fortune of being completed at the outset of the French revolution with its fierce anti-clerical leanings, and was converted a year later — in 1791 — into a mausoleum for the burial of great Frenchmen by a decree from the National Constituent Assembly.
Embodying a certain tension between church and state that still endures in France, the Pantheon aptly represents the ambiguous and conflicted relationship between the French and abortion — as well as their feelings toward its advocates.
Thomas D. Williams is a Rome-based Catholic moral theologian, author and professor of Ethics. The Rome Bureau Chief for Breitbart News, Williams’ fifteen books include The World as It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation (Crossroad) and Who Is My Neighbor? Personalism and the Foundations of Human Rights (CUA Press).