FEATURE: The doctor battling Germany’s Nazi-era abortion law

After a German court fined her 6,000 euros ($7,400) for spelling out on her practice's website that she performs abortions, gynaecologist Kristina Hänel vowed that "it can't go on like this".

FEATURE: The doctor battling Germany's Nazi-era abortion law
Kristina Hänel was fined 6,000 euros for advertising abortion. Photo: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa
Likewise, her Kassel-based colleague Nora Szasz, who is facing a similar threat under a Nazi-era law, said she would not give in.
“We are not afraid,” Hänel told AFP, vowing she is ready to take the battle to Germany's highest court against a 1933 law that bans medical practitioners from advertising that they carry out terminations of pregnancies.
Germany, despite being a leading voice for women's rights in the 1970s, imposes tight restrictions on abortion. The procedure is permitted but only under strictly regulated circumstances. It is left out of universities' course books for student doctors and kept unavailable in swathes of the country.
Hänel and Szasz have fallen foul of the law because they stated on the website of their medical practice that they perform abortions.
“That's just a mention among 12 other types of surgical procedures that I carry out as a gynaecologist,” said Szasz, who was recently charged for flouting article 219a of the penal code.
With the cases of Hänel and Szasz in the media spotlight, the issue has sparked a political debate, with some among the opposition calling for article 219a to be scrapped and for women to be given access to the critical
Noting that article 219a dated back to May 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler assumed full powers of Nazi Germany, Verena Osgyan, a local MP for the Greens in the Bavarian regional parliament, told AFP that it was an “unbelievable anachronism”.
More than 80 years on, abortion remains a taboo, said Berlin gynaecologist Christiane Tennhardt.
“In Germany, legislation remains very complex and contradictory,” said Jutta Pliefke, of Pro Familia, which counsels women on pregnancies and sexuality and receives public funding.
Germany records an average of 100,000 abortions for 790,000 births, while in France, there are 210,000-220,000 terminations for 800,000 births.
A woman who wants to abort within the first trimester is required to attend a consultation at a registered centre. The aim of the interview is to “incite the woman to continue the pregnancy,” according to the rules, even if in the end, she has the final say. A three-day waiting period is then imposed for the woman to reconsider her
Excluding special circumstances such as a pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother, or one arising from rape, abortion — which can cost hundreds of euros — is not a procedure that is reimbursable by health insurance.
In some regions, including in the predominantly Catholic state of Bavaria, it may be necessary to travel 100 kilometres (about 60 miles) to find a doctor who performs the procedure. In parts of the rich southern region, no public hospital offers such terminations.
“Many of the doctors who do it are long past their retirement age,” said Osgyan.
Some patients choose to turn to Austria. And the situation looks far from improving, as doctors are not taught the
procedure in universities. Because of the penal code restriction, no research grant is provided and
neither are medical congresses held on the subject, said Pro Familia.
Blocking any reform of the current legislation, Health Minister Jens Spahn has spoken out for the protection of “human life at birth”.
“When it comes to the life of animals, those who now want to promote abortions are uncompromising,” charged the openly gay minister, taking aim at liberals calling for greater openness about terminations.
Spahn, 37, a critic of Merkel within her Christian Democrats, has not been known to shy away from controversy.
In 2012, he drew fire for opposing a bid to turn the contraceptive pill from a prescription medicine to an over-the-counter drug, as he remarked that “pills are not Smarties”.
For the Greens, Spahn “propagates an image of women that dates to the 1950s”.
But the “pro-life” lobby backs Spahn, as they charge that blood tests to detect Down's syndrome could contribute to a rise in the number of abortions.  Anti-abortion activist Klaus Günter Annen, who filed the legal claim against Szasz, has compared abortion to the Nazi-run Auschwitz death camp.
Recounting the fierce opposition she faces over the procedure, Haenel said she “constantly receives death threats”.
For fear of flouting the law, doctors who perform the procedure prefer to keep their names off any lists provided by counsellors to women seeking the information.
“That's the real scandal that no one talks about,” said Hänel, noting that the irony is that the only websites carrying lists of doctors who carry out terminations are anti-abortion sites.
Pro Familia's Pliefke noted that feminists have largely forgotten the battle for the right to choose.
“It is urgent to reappropriate the theme” to fight “reactionary forces that are particularly powerful,” she added.


Germany’s third virus wave ‘appears to have broken’, says Health Minister

Germany seems to have halted a surge of coronavirus infections driven by the British variant, Health Minister Jens Spahn said Friday, cautioning however against lifting restrictions precipitously.

Germany's third virus wave 'appears to have broken', says Health Minister
Spahn speaking at a press conference on Friday May 7th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

“The third wave appears to have broken,” Spahn told a press conference in Berlin.

READ ALSO: IN DETAIL: These are Germany’s planned freedoms for Covid-vaccinated people

“The infection figures are dropping again, but we are still at a high level. They are not yet falling everywhere at the same rate, but they are falling,” he said.

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute health agency recorded 18,485 new infections in the past 24 hours on Friday — compared with 27,543 on the same day two weeks ago.

The number of new infections per 100,000 people over the past seven days stood at 125.7.

Under national virus measures introduced in April, areas with incidence rates below 100 are allowed to begin easing some restrictions.

But Spahn warned that easing curbs too much too soon “would only help the virus”.

“In this phase of the pandemic, it is really a matter of not gambling away what has been achieved,” he said.

The so-called emergency brake rules prescribe strict curbs in areas with rates above 100, including sweeping shutdowns, contact restrictions and overnight curfews.

But the Bundesrat upper house of parliament on Friday approved new legislation to lift some curbs for fully vaccinated people and those who have recovered from Covid-19.

Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht called the move “a very important step towards more normality”.

‘Urgent need’

From Sunday, they would no longer have to abide by curfews or limits on social contacts.

Berlin’s mayor Michael Müller admitted that it was going to be “damn difficult to check” the curbs are lifted only to those who fall under these categories.

But he argued that “this is about fundamental rights, and they can only be restricted when there is an urgent need to do so”.

After a slow start, Germany began accelerating its vaccination campaign in April and last week gave the jab to more than one million people in one day.

Some 31.5 percent of the population have received at least one injection by Friday.

Spahn said Thursday that Germany will aim to offer Covid-19 vaccines to all children aged 12 and over by the end of August once a jab is approved for younger people by the European regulator.

It has also opened up the AstraZeneca vaccine to anyone who wants it.

The AstraZeneca jab had previously been recommended only for people aged 60 and older following concerns over blood clotting cases among younger recipients of the vaccine.

READ ALSO: Germany gives green light to offer AstraZeneca to all adults