3 September 1937 - 25 June 2016
Anne-Marie Rey, pioneer in the struggle for abortion rights in Switzerland, has died aged 78
Anne-Marie Rey, a socialist and supporter of the rights of women throughout her life, has died suddenly and unexpectedly of acute heart failure on 25 June at the age of 78. She was at the forefront of the struggle for the decriminalization of abortion in Switzerland for over 40 years.
She is best known as one of the founders of USPDA, l'Union suisse pour décriminaliser l'avortement (Swiss Union for the Decriminalization of Abortion), who made an enormous contribution to the legalization of abortion in Switzerland, which took place in 2002.
Anne-Marie grew up in Burgdorf, a small rural town in canton Bern, in the heart of rural Switzerland. Her commitment to abortion rights was first learned from her father, who was a gynaecologist. Abortion was not completely illegal in Switzerland and the law could be interpreted to allow some abortions, though interpretations differed. Anne-Marie's father's understanding of the law allowed him to welcome patients sent by colleagues who felt they could not take the responsibility to provide abortions, and he was known far beyond the canton's borders to terminate pregnancies.
Anne-Marie studied to be a translator/interpreter at the University of Geneva from 1962-65. While working for the Swiss federal government, she also studied dance. It was at that time that she found herself with an unwanted pregnancy. To her great relief, her father terminated the pregnancy for her. A few years later she was a young mother with three children and began to develop her political commitment to abortion rights.
She became an avid reader of medical publications on clandestine abortions, where she learned of the numerous deaths arising from unsafe interventions, as well as the many criminal convictions under Swiss law. It was following the publication of an article she wrote in the journal Bund on clandestine abortions that she was contacted in 1970 by a lawyer, Fritz Dutler, who wanted to launch a popular initiative whose aim was the decriminalization of abortion. But they had to wait for women to get the right to vote (granted only in 1971 by a referendum among Swiss men) and a parliamentary motion by Maurice Favre, a member of the Radical Party from Neuchâtel. This came as the result of several indictments against doctors and two women in the canton of Neuchâtel, and was the start of the first initiative to repeal the clauses in the Swiss Penal Code which had threatened, since 1942, imprisonment for abortions not allowed under the law.
The first initiative for a referendum was launched by Anne-Marie and four other women at the end of 1971, without the support of any political parties, and attracted opposition in Catholic and conservative circles. "Although we were only five at the beginning, the word spread like wildfire and many groups joined us, such as the Movement for the Liberation of Women (MLF), who collected a large part of the signatures for the initiative." USPDA was founded in 1973 and quickly gained 4,000 supporters. In 1976, a second motion was tabled in Parliament, but only two members of the Socialists, Jean Ziegler and Arthur Villard, spoke in support of it. Considered too radical, even by its initiators, the motion was withdrawn, and a more moderate version developed that called for legal abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy. Anne-Marie said: "It was a strategic choice. We feared that if we got a massive rejection, it would be harder to win later." The initiative was rejected by the people in a referendum in 1977, but by only 51.7% of the votes. "Our opponents spent millions on the campaign. In comparison, our means were laughable."
After that, the USPDA decided to keep a low profile for ten years, not wanting to lose another vote, but in Anne-Marie's house, where the USPDA was based, they remained active and engaged in discreet lobbying of parliamentarians with medical and scientific facts.
As it turned out, the lack of a victory was only partial. The law on abortion did begin to be liberalised in several cantons. Then, an initiative called "For the right to life" by anti-abortionists was rejected in a national referendum in 1985.
From 1987 to 1995, Anne-Marie served as a representative of the Social Democratic Party (SP) in the Bernese Cantonal Parliament. She also remained the driving force of the abortion rights movement. It took another three decades after the 1971 initiative before the USPDA achieved its aims. On 2 June 2002, the Swiss people voted to approve abortion on request up to 12 weeks, by a 72.2% majority. The same day, they rejected the initiative "Pour la mère et l’enfant" (For the mother and child) proposed by conservative circles, with a vote of 81.7% against.
Their task accomplished, they thought at the time, the members of the USPDA decided in 2003 to dissolve the association. "We believed we would never have to revisit this major achievement. We were wrong."
Translator, writer, political activist
In her memoirs, published in 2007, Anne-Marie recalled the experiences and destinies of the last Swiss women who died from illegal abortions and others who were convicted of illegal abortions during the 1980s. She also wrote about the fact that her father had been convicted twice for doing illegal abortions himself. She describes her despair, helplessness and anger over her own unintended pregnancy and from it, how she understood the importance of the struggle for the liberalisation of abortion. The book's title, Die Erzengelmacherin (which has beene translated as the archangel-maker or the Pope of abortionists) originated from a dismissive comment by a hostile member of the Swiss Parliament, which she took as a compliment and adopted with pride.
In 2014, at the age of 76, she was still actively working for abortion rights and maintaining a database and sharing information on abortion. Her steadfast support up to the days before her death for Dr Carlos Morín in Spain, who has also been prosecuted for abortions he believed were justified under the law, must have been spurred by memories of the prosecution of her father when she was young.
Le Courrier published the story of her life's work in her own words:
"I am still not tired and when I rebel, I do not do it by half."
"I owe my commitment to my father… Clandestine abortions in Switzerland stood between 20,000 and 50,000 per year in the 1960s. But it was especially the recurring injustices that served as the breeding ground for my activism. There were deaths as a result of clandestine abortions and convictions. There was no sex education nor suitable means of contraception. The pill, which had just come on the market, was high dosage, and my father refused to prescribe it for me."
"It was the personal trauma that transformed my indignation into political activism. I was 24 years old, well-informed and protected, but contraceptive failure caused an unintended pregnancy. I had major life projects and all of it was going to be ruined by a faulty diaphragm. I cried, I was angry, my whole body was in revolt against this pregnancy. I was in great psychological distress… After the abortion, I felt relieved. The anti-abortion movement endlessly invokes the physical and psychological injury from an abortion, but this is false in most cases. An unwanted pregnancy is a much heavier trauma for a woman."
If she is now a bit in retreat, it is "because we must leave the struggle to the younger generations to fight for their rights". But her anger is still there: "An embryo of a few millimeters, as a potential life in gestation, is not the equivalent of a baby. It may not be prioritised to the detriment of a woman of flesh and bones, who has a history, life plans and an existence. Abortion is not a choice against life but a means of its defence."
Dr Christian Fiala, Specialist in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Gynmed Clinic, Vienna, writes:
"As far as women's rights are concerned, Anne-Marie realised that one may never assume that a once gained right would apply forever. In 2014, a referendum entitled "Financing abortion is a private matter" called for removing state payment for abortion from the basic health insurance list and said "Those who make up their minds in favour of abortion should bear the costs themselves." The initiative was widely rejected in the vote.
"Anne-Marie regarded the right to decide for abortion as an important step towards equality between men and women: ”As long as women may not choose their motherhood freely, equality between the sexes will remain a dream.“ Decade after decade, Anne-Marie Rey continued her intense lobbying work while continuing to work as translator and raising three children.
"Due to the efforts of Anne-Marie and her fellow activists, Switzerland today ranks high among the countries with very low abortion rates. Currently, only one in ten pregnancies ends in induced abortion, while it used to be one in every three in the 1960s."
Dr André Seidenberg, Specialist in General Medicine, Zürich, writes:
"After the victory in 2002, while others withdrew from loss of interest, Anne-Marie remained active in the field. Nobody knew more about the history of abortion and facts on abortion. She gathered crucial information and data on the practice of abortion in Switzerland and resolutely collected statistical data from nearly every hospital in Switzerland. Based on this, she argued for improved services and methods of termination of pregnancy. With continuing disbelief, she had to face the fact that in Switzerland today, it is still not possible to offer a late abortion to every woman who needs it.
"Up to her last day she was a tireless fighter for the rights, needs and dignity of women and of all people. Even during her last weeks she was giving essential aid to women in emotional distress. The last update of her website was only one week before her death, and her last e-mail only one day before.
"Nobody can replace her. We miss her every day."
Her husband and three children survive her. She leaves behind many people working for abortion rights who were proud to be able to work with her, learned a huge amount from her, enjoyed her company and her wit, and respected and cared deeply for her.
Translated and edited by Marge Berer
Photograph: Hans Jakob Rey/Christian Fiala
Text in memoriam: Christian Fiala, Newsletter, Museum of Contraception and Abortion, Vienna, July 2016
Text in memoriam, by André Seidenberg, Zurich, 13 July 2016
Le Courrier, 28 juin 2016
Wikipedia, Anne-Marie Rey
Le Courrier, by Matteo Maillard, 20 janvier 2014