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Why are there more abortions in Berlin?

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Why are there more abortions in Berlin?
Photo: DPA
13:21 CEST+02:00
Women in Berlin are more likely to end an unwanted pregnancy than in any other state in Germany. Close behind are the former East German states. Exberliner's Ben Knight looks at what's going on.

'That was the fourth - but the last one. Now I have a coil (IUD),' says Dominique, a 38-year-old bi-national Berlin mother of a sweet six-year-old girl, referring to her abortion last year. 'My mum had eight, I was number seven, she decided to keep me!'

Dominique was raised in East Germany. 'In those days abortion was a contraception method. That was just the way it was.' Does she think it influenced her in any way? 'Of course it did. Your mum's behaviour is bound to influence your own. We never talked about sex … As for her abortions, I kind of knew although it was never discussed - it was just a fact of life among many others.'

Dominique's mum was there the first two times she aborted. 'She didn't try to convince me it was wrong, terrible or that I should be more careful … it took me some time to find out by myself!'

With her four abortions for one birth, Dominique is no exceptional case. The abortion rate in Berlin is strikingly high, the highest in Germany. In 2006, 10,024 Berlin women decided to not keep their babies. One in four pregnancies was terminated, far above the 15 percent national average. Another startling statistic shows that abortion rates in the former East German states are significantly higher than in the former West - ranging from 200 abortions for every 1,000 births in Saxony, to over 260 for every 1,000 in Saxony-Anhalt.

This compares to a West German range from 126 abortions per 1,000 births in Bavaria to 179 in Hesse. Many people are shocked and puzzled by these facts - are East Germans and especially Berliners getting deficient sex education? Or do their liberal or socialist backgrounds mean that they have less respect for the potential human life in their wombs? Does it matter?

There seems to be no clear, single reason to explain the fact. So what is going on?

The Böhmer scandal

Saxony-Anhalt's premier Wolfgang Böhmer (CDU) triggered a debate on the issue at the end of February, when he claimed that child murders and abortions in the former East were directly related to the law introduced in the GDR in 1972, which legalised abortion. He then upped the ante: 'It seems to me that child murders - though they've always happened - have become a method of birth control.'

The absurdity of this statement has some context. Böhmer's background (and his age: 72) partly explains his ill-considered equation between abortion and murder, and his condemnation of Communist procedure: as a Christian gynaecologist in Görlitz in the GDR, he participated in the state family-planning programme, before his faith forced him to a church-run hospital in Wittenberg where abortions were not carried out. In the fateful interview he gave in FOCUS, he remembered 'women coming in grinning, saying, I have a holiday in Bulgaria coming up - get rid of it!'

The East-West gap

The abortion numbers in the GDR were consistently much higher than in the Federal Republic despite having less than one third the population. Even in the peak year 1982, when there were more abortions in the whole of Germany than any other year, there were 96,414 abortions in the GDR compared to 91,064 in West Germany. In 1977 there were 356 abortions for every 1,000 births in the GDR. In 1982, this rose to 399 for every 1,000 births. Only in the late 1980s did this figure begin to drop.

Silvia Heyer, sociologist and counsellor at the family-planning organisation Pro Familia, is more reluctant to name specific causes: 'It's a jigsaw: There are many different pieces that make up the picture.' She does believe that the freedom the Socialist system offered to young women wanting abortions created a different attitude in East Germany, and this is still partially evident.

'Although the women who have abortions today are generally too young to have been influenced by the Communist family-planning programme, I think it's true that young women are often influenced by their parents, and the GDR attitudes could easily be transmitted by older generations.'

But she says she has seen little difference in the attitudes of East and West German women wanting abortions she has counselled at Pro Familia.

A clue to the East-West imbalance could also lie in the reasons women give at counselling sessions. By far the biggest reason for wanting an abortion is economic - according to Heyer, the majority of the young women she sees don't believe they have the means to 'provide a good life for a child.' Also, the perception is that having a baby will hinder their chances of finishing their education or finding a good job.

'If they live in the former East, where people are poorer and where good jobs are more scarce, the perceived economic pressure to have an abortion is stronger,' says Heyer. The statistics on abortion costs show that indeed most of the women having abortions are relatively poor - over 90 percent of abortions are paid for by the state, because the women fall into low-income brackets. The average abortion costs €357.

The city-country divide

As for Berlin's high abortion rates, Heyer also has several explanations. 'Berlin is a city that a lot of young people move to. They want to explore their new freedom, and they are away from the influence of their parents. Of course, they are also away from the support of their parents, which is another factor in their decision.'

Berlin also has another advantage for young women with an unwanted pregnancy: It is a city.

In Germany as in many other countries, there's a striking divide in abortion statistics between city and country. By far the highest abortion rates (nearly twice the national average) are found in the city-states: Hamburg, Bremen and, highest of all, Berlin, where, in 2006, there were 344.5 abortions for every 1,000 births.

The most obvious explanation for this is that the abortion options are much greater in the cities. There are 25 counselling institutions in Berlin, plus around 190 doctors with the necessary license to give abortion counselling. In most German states, where statistics are influenced by small towns, counselling stations are more likely to be run by a church, which will openly attempt to persuade women to carry out the pregnancy. But even for a city, Berlin offers more choice for young women than most. In Munich, for example, there are only two abortion-counselling stations.

Counselling facilities

German abortion law is clearly formulated to discourage abortion. The infamous Paragraphs 218 and 219 rule that abortion is illegal, making exceptions for women who have undergone counselling.

The purpose of the counselling is to 'protect the unborn life. The counselling should encourage the woman to continue the pregnancy, and should help her see the opportunities of bringing up a child.' She must also observe a three-day 'consideration period' after the counselling before she can abort. One thing is for sure: abortion counsellors in Berlin don't seem to discourage abortions.

Dr. Gröschl, another abortion counsellor at Pro Familia, says: 'The purpose of counselling is to help someone make their own decision, not to impose anything. In 80 percent of the cases, the women have already decided to abort before they come here. In those cases, we do not try to change their decision. The other 20 percent are enuinely unsure of what they want, and we can help those make a decision. More and more, we've noticed their partners accompanying them. But we make sure the decision is always finally the woman's.'

Ever heard of contraception?

All this still begs the question: Why are there so many unwanted pregnancies in the first place?

Why do so many men and women fail to use contraception, or fail to use it properly? It is impossible to give a general answer to something that affects so many people: According to the Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology in the USA, nearly half of pregnancies in the developed world are unplanned.

But can naivety account for all these? In 2006, half the women who resorted to abortion were aged 20 to 29, one-third were between 30 and 39, less than five percent were under 18 and under-15-year-olds accounted for a mere 0.4 percent - so it seems that many adult couples who end up with a pregnancy are just thoughtless at the critical moment. Casual sex is certainly a factor - unplanned pregnancies are statistically more likely to happen outside fixed relationships.

The reasons that Dr. Gröschl hears from the women she meets vary widely: 'Many women talk about the heat of the moment. Many women thought they couldn't get pregnant, or thought that their partners were infertile. Many thought they could get away with using 'natural' techniques. Some women took the morning-after pill, and then vomited. And then of course, no contraception is 100 percent safe.'

The women themselves give similar answers: Tamara, a 31-year-old Berliner, said, 'I've had two abortions and one child. I got pregnant despite the pill once. I might have missed a dose, and once a condom got lost inside me. But obviously, in this day and age, you should be able to take care of yourself more. I didn't. There's something wrong there. But I don't know what.'

Marie, a 25-year-old, got stuck in a difficult situation as a foreigner in Berlin: 'The last time I got pregnant I was 22. I don't know why we didn't use condoms. They just feel awful. I didn't have health insurance so I couldn't get the pill. I asked my boyfriend to buy me the pill, but he said he didn't believe in messing with your hormones. So we used the withdrawal method. When he found out I was pregnant, he was so shocked. "But we've been being so careful!" Pretty stupid, huh? When I went for the counselling in West Berlin, they told me I had a condition where you just keep on having abortion after abortion until someone makes you have a kid. The doctor said, "You don't want to be the kind of woman who's had 10 abortions, do you? You should have this kid."'

Dr. Gröschl also feels that, despite our over-sexed society and media, actual sexual knowledge is fairly superficial among the general public: 'People think they know a lot about their bodies when they don't. I meet a lot of women, not just teenagers, who've heard of the morning-after pill, but don't know, for example, how they are meant to take it.'

But there may be some hope. Generally, the number of abortions in Germany has been dropping steadily (from 134,609 in 2000 to 116,871 in 2007), and overall, the country has a relatively low rate compared to its European neighbours with similar abortion laws, with the exception of the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland.

As a matter of fact, when it comes to explaining the reasons behind high abortion rates, the European map seems divided in two: the countries with high teenage abortions (the UK has the highest teen pregnancy and teen abortion rates in Western Europe, a trend that's worryingly increasing); and those with former Soviet bloc attitudes (the Russian Federation tops the league with more abortions than live births, followed by Bosnia, Estonia and Romania).

Although Berlin continues to show evidence of the latter's symptom, teenage abortion rates are incredibly low and overall numbers are dwindling. Perhaps Berlin, like the rest of Germany, is approaching an answer to the social problems of which abortion is often a symptom.

Click here for more from Berlin's top monthly magazine in English.

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