The Last Woman Guillotined in WWII France Risked Her Life Over Abortion Rights

The Last Woman Guillotined in WWII France Risked Her Life Over Abortion Rights

By Jennifer Conerly
The Last Woman Guillotined in WWII France Risked Her Life Over Abortion Rights

Abortion is a topic of fierce debate in many countries all over the world, and it is an issue we are still discussing today. Government regulation limiting safe access to abortion and forms of birth control forces women to seek alternative methods that often lead to illness and death.

Two women, Marie-Louise Giraud and Simone Veil, acting decades apart, each played an active role in the abortion debate in France. Giraud was guillotined on July 30, 1943, becoming the last woman in France to be executed for performing abortions and the last of five women to be killed during Philippe Pétain’s pro-Nazi Vichy regime.

Thirty-two years later, in 1975, Veil, the French Minister of Health and a concentration camp survivor, successfully legalized abortion.

In France, like most countries around the world, the government has passed legislation to control women’s access to safe abortions and methods of birth control. The Catholic Church had always openly condemned abortion, and the Napoleonic Code of 1810 officially banned them, threatening those who had one with prison time.

Things changed in the early twentieth century with the horrible population losses France suffered during World War I. A collection of laws were passed in the 1920s defining the meaning of the term “abortion” and further restricting access to birth control to increase the population.

Marie-Louise Giraud.

In 1920, France redefined birth control and contraceptives as forms of abortion, prohibiting their sale and advertisement. Suggesting or paying for an abortion also became illegal. In 1923, it became illegal to import birth control from other countries. The law was adjusted to punish both the person who performed the procedure and the patient by making sure these cases faced trial in criminal courts. The abortionist could serve up to five years in prison, and the patient could serve up to two years.

Petain shakes hands with Hitler, October 1940. BBC.

By 1939, worsening economic conditions led to an increase in women terminating their pregnancies, so the government sought to stop this behavior. The Code de la Famille, also known as the Family Code, increased sanctions on those who procured abortions while also rewarding couples who had large families. In the meantime, international tensions were picking up. France declared war on Germany in response to the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.

By May 1940, the French realized that they could not win the war and recognized their eventual defeat. Even though the French government was divided on whether it should retreat to continue the fight or stay and surrender to the Germans, those who supported submission won the debate and agreed to negotiations. The French and the Germans signed the Second Compiègne armistice agreement in June 1940, with Prime Minister Philippe Pétain installed as the head of government the next month, establishing the Nazi puppet state in France known as the Vichy regime.