Lucien Neuwirth, the Gaullist politician responsible for the 1967 legalisation of the contraceptive pill in France, died Tuesday at the age of 89.
News of his death, from a lung infection, topped the morning news bulletins as commentators reflected on the impact of a landmark reform that was hugely controversial at the time.
Neuwirth, born in the industrial town of Saint Etienne on May 18, 1924, was also celebrated as one of the longest surviving heroes of the World War II Resistance, which he joined in 1940 at the age of 16.
For the final two years of the war, he served as part of the Free French Forces contingent in Britain’s elite Special Air Service (SAS), repeatedly parachuting behind enemy lines on daring reconnaissance missions and seeing action during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in 1944-45.
During another mission behind enemy lines, in The Netherlands in April 1945, Neuwirth was part of a group of 15 paratroopers taken prisoner by German forces. Fifty years later he recounted how a number of his comrades had been shot and how he had escaped death because the bullet that would have killed him struck a coin in his pocket.
After the war, Neuwirth worked in local government in his home town and became a prominent parliamentarian.
In the mid-1960s, many in France were still preoccupied by the need to maximise a national birthrate that had been decimated by two World Wars.
That, coupled with the Catholic Church’s hostility to all forms of contraception, ensured the bill that made Neuwirth’s reputation encountered ferocious opposition, not least from his own political allies.
He was denounced as an “evildoer” in the upper house Senate. But, crucially, Neuwirth had secured the blessing of Charles de Gaulle despite the then-president’s initial reservations. By the end of 1967 his bill had become law, although it was to take another two years for it to be applied in practise and another decade before the legalisation of abortion gave French women full control of their fertility.
Years later, Neuwirth was to reveal how his commitment to women’s rights had been born of his experience fighting alongside female comrades in the Resistance. “For me, men and women were the same,” he said.
In exile in London as a 17-year-old, he discovered that some women were using a spermicidal pessary, gynomin, and he became so enthusiastic about sharing them with friends that he earned the nickname “Lulu the pill.”
His commitment to the contraceptive cause was strengthened by his work in Saint Etienne after the war, recalling later that he had been greatly influenced by one woman telling him: “I’ve had enough. Every time my husband comes home drunk, he gives me a kid.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]