While still in high school in 1971, age 16, Marie-Claire Chevalier was raped by a schoolmate. She became pregnant and had an illgal abortion. She was arrested and charged under a 1920 law that prohibited abortion, along with her mother and three other women. They were defended by Gisèle Halimi, one of the founders with Simone de Beauvoir, of the group Choisir, who campaigned for the decriminalisation of abortion in France, which happened in 1975.
You can read an in-depth history of the life of Gisèle Halimi and the role she played in this Financial Times article of 31 July 2020, written following her death, aged 93. We also reported Halimi’s incredible life and death in the Campaign newsletter on 31 July 2020.
Now Marie-Claire Chevalier has died, aged only 66. The fact that she had been tried for an illegal abortion was because the rapist was arrested for auto theft, and to avoid prosecution he gave police her details. He was released; she was prosecuted and imprisoned. In a sensational 1972 trial, she was represented by Gisèle Halimi, who won her acquittal in a landmark case that helped to pave the way for the decriminalisation of abortion in France. Halimi used the trial to great political effect, by declaring in her opening arguments that she herself, even being a lawyer, had had an abortion, saying, “Sometimes it is necessary to break the law to move forward and bring about a change in society.”
Chevalier, her mother and the others on trial were all acquitted. Although she felt proud of the effect the trial had on law reform, Chevalier was traumatised both by the rape and by the clandestine abortion, which almost killed her, and she remained haunted by both for the rest of her life. She changed her name after the trial and from then on, lived the rest of her life out of the public eye.
Yet her story has appeared regularly in the media in France – from radio to TV to theatre productions. Even a blue metal footbridge in front of the Bobigny courtroom, where her case was heard, was dedicated in her name.
She later worked as a child-care assistant, a welder for the army, a nurse in a hospital and in a retirement home. In her final years, she lived alone with her many cats and two horses in the countryside. “She died without ever asking anyone for anything,” her mother said in an interview. “She needed help, and she never contacted us.”
She remains an inspiration to younger French feminists. “Marie-Claire Chevalier has made us the most beautiful gift,” Céline Piques, spokeswoman for the group Osez le féminisme! (Dare to be feminist!), said in an interview. That gift was to take on the cause of abortion rights and agree to be publicly exposed, with the consequences I assume it had on her personal life.”
SOURCE: New York Times, 10 February 2022 ; PHOTO: Elle, October 1972, © SIPA