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

“The Family is the Foundation of Society.” Vichy propaganda poster. Getty Images.

Pétain blamed the French defeat on the low population collapse of morals of the previous administration and led a social revolution focused on conservative values that focused on the women of France being obedient, fertile housewives. The Vichy regime made it difficult for women, many of whom were alone due to their husbands being held as prisoners of war by the Germans, to support themselves. Married women couldn’t hold certain jobs, but the state made certain provisions for them if they stayed home with their families. Still, food and supplies were short. Some women turned to odd jobs to support their families, including prostitution.

Marie-Louise Giraud lived during a time of great upheaval in her home country. Born on November 17, 1903, into a low-income family, she was briefly imprisoned as a young woman for theft and fraud before settling down in the port city of Cherbourg, marrying a sailor and having two children. She cleaned houses and worked as a laundress to support her family. When the Nazis occupied Cherbourg in June 1940, there was an influx of prostitutes to the area, and Giraud rented rooms out to them.

Marie-Louise Giraud’s true motives as abortionist are unclear. We can only assume that with two children to care for herself, she knew how hard it was to make ends meet. We are aware that she rented rooms to prostitutes, so she saw the high number of prostitutes and as well as wives in Cherbourg dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Whether her reasons were to offer women a way out of unwanted pregnancies, a way to make extra money to provide for her own family, or both is unknown. Still, she performed abortions on 27 women, including one who died in January 1942. An anonymous letter detailing Giraud’s activities written in October 1942 led to her arrest.

By 1942, abortionists were tried by State Tribunals and faced the death penalty. During her trial, prosecutors attacked Giraud’s character more than her activities. Philippe Pétain called her an immoral woman. She was labeled a faiseuse d’anges, an “angel-maker,” a derogatory term for a woman in the non-medical profession who assists in the termination of a pregnancy.

The Advocate General, the special prosecutor who presided over the trial, advised that the only punishment for her was death. The panel of judges that tried her case agreed and sentenced her to death. Pétain condemned Giraud and refused to commute her sentence to save her life.

Giraud’s sentence meant that she would face the guillotine. Famous for its role in the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, the guillotine was the French preferred legal form of execution until 1981. Giraud was executed on July 30, 1943, outside the prison de la Roquette, the last woman executed during the Vichy regime.

She is often misrepresented as the last woman executed by guillotine in France, but four more women, all convicted murderers, were killed between 1947 and 1949. The last woman to be executed in France by guillotine was Germaine Leloy-Godefroy, on April 21, 1949. After the end of World War II, the French government outlawed the death penalty for abortionists, but they were still heavily prosecuted.