In 2008, she became one of few politicians to be elected to the Académie Française, the august 40-member body that is the authority on the French language; Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the president under whom Mrs. Veil served as health minister, is another.
Opinion polls routinely showed Mrs. Veil to be one of the most admired people in France.
The abortion law, still known as the Veil Law, was one of the most divisive actions taken by the government of Mr. Giscard d’Estaing and his first prime minister, Jacques Chirac.
In three days of debate before the National Assembly passed the law on Nov. 29, 1974, by a vote of 284 to 189, phrases like “an act of murder,” “monstrous” and “France is making coffins instead of cribs” were hurled in the chamber. Critics likened abortion to Nazi euthanasia; one asked, “Madame Minister, do you want to send children to the ovens?”
Mrs. Veil told lawmakers: “I say this with total conviction: Abortion should stay an exception, the last resort for desperate situations. How, you may ask, can we tolerate it without its losing the character of an exception — without it seeming as though society encourages it? I will share a conviction of women, and I apologize for doing it in front of this assembly comprised almost exclusively of men: No woman resorts to abortion lightheartedly.”
Abortion had been criminalized in France since the Napoleonic era. The new law, which took effect on Jan. 17, 1975, made the procedure legal during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy (later extended to 12), and required that the procedure be carried out by a doctor at a hospital or a clinic. Girls under 18 were required to obtain parental consent.
Mrs. Veil, whose parents and brother died in the Holocaust, rejected the comparison of abortion to murder as absurd.
Simone Jacob was born in Nice, France, on July 13, 1927, the youngest of four children of André Jacob, an architect, and the former Yvonne Steinmetz. She completed her baccalaureate, the diploma required to pursue university studies, on March 29, 1944, the day before her arrest by the Germans.
She was deported, with her eldest sibling, Madeleine (nicknamed Milou), and their mother, to…