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

“Story of Women” movie poster. Isabelle Huppert as Marie-Louise Giraud. Imdb.com

The story of Marie-Louise Giraud is vital to the history of reproductive rights in France, yet not many people know who she is. There is a minimal reference to her in popular culture. The 1988 French film Une affaire de femmes (Story of Women), starring Isabelle Huppert and based on the book by Francis Szpiner, is a highly fictionalized representation of Giraud’s actions, yet is cited more as a criticism of the Vichy regime. The film won numerous awards and nominations, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign film, and frequently appears on must-watch lists.

Despite the relative silence regarding her life story, Giraud’s death had far-reaching effects in France that she could never have foreseen. At the time of her death, a young student named Simone Jacob was about to begin her last year of high school. She was arrested by the Germans days after she finished her studies in March 1944. By the end of World War II, she had survived both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, and her mother, father, and brother were dead.

Simone Veil speaks in support of abortion law at the French National Assembly in Paris, December 13, 1974. New York Daily News.

After the war, she went to law school, where she met her husband, Antoine Veil. After many years of law practice, she became a magistrate judge. As a magistrate, she worked tirelessly to help women. As a senior official in the National Penitentiary Administration, she improved the conditions and treatment in women’s prisons.

Veil also worked during the Algerian War to group Algerian women prisoners together and allowed them to pursue their education. In 1964, as Director of Civil Affairs, she improved the rights of French women in family matters by allowing them an equal role in family legal issues, increasing rights for single mothers, and giving women more adoption rights.

Veil’s most remarkable achievement was her role as Minister of Health from 1974 to 1979. In this capacity, she became a champion for women’s reproductive rights. Since 1967, the sale of birth control had been legal in France, but it was still difficult to obtain. By 1974, Veil had passed a law that eased the restrictions, making birth control more accessible to all women. She is most known for legalizing abortion, which was a long and challenging process.

She was met with resistance, in which she and her family were threatened, most of the threats being anti-Semitic in nature. Still, she succeeded in passing the legalization of abortion on January 17, 1975, thirty-two years after Giraud’s execution. In addition to what is now called the Veil law, she was also able to pass legislation that provided health care, maternity benefits, and monthly stipends for child care for women. Veil died on June 30, 2017.