abortion For Members

What you need to know about the abortion law battle that divides Germany

Rachel Loxton
Rachel Loxton - [email protected]
What you need to know about the abortion law battle that divides Germany
Protesters campaigning for the abolishment of paragraph 219a hold a banner outside Gießen district court in November last year. Photo: DPA

The debate over Germany's controversial Nazi-era abortion law is dominating the Bundestag right now. We looked at how the country is dealing with this divisive issue - and spoke to the doctor fighting for change.


On a crisp, sunny day in Berlin, hundreds of people gathered on the streets chanting: ‘My body, my choice, raise your voice.’

As they walked along the capital’s Unter den Linden carrying banners that read: ‘Whether we choose to have children or not, we alone decide it,' many of these pro-choice protesters, were sending a message that they are unhappy with the current abortion laws in Germany.

SEE ALSO: Five things to know about abortion in Germany

The debate is a divisive and tricky issue that can be difficult to understand. Why? Well the procedure, which is covered by section 218 of the country's criminal code, is technically illegal in Germany, but there are circumstances in which a woman can have a termination without facing any legal consequences.

A woman can legally have an abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and only after taking part in a counselling session.

After this point, abortions can be legal in cases when the physical or mental health of the mother is at risk. If prenatal tests find that the foetus is seriously ill or disabled, a late abortion (Spätabtreibung) is also allowed under German law.

Meanwhile, 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 can be claimed back through health insurance.

Many people want to completely reform these laws, which were first introduced into German criminal law under Bismarck in 1871. But there are others who want to keep the laws as they are, or even make them stricter: at the same time as the pro-choice march in Berlin in September, a pro-life demonstration, called March for Life, was happening just a few streets away. 

Demonstrators in Berlin in September with a banner that says: 'Paragraph 219a is not enough, away with paragraph 218'

'Advertising' of abortions is banned

This topic has become a talking point as pressure grows on the government to abolish a clause of the law, known as paragraph 219a, put into place in the Nazi-era, that bans medical practitioners from advertising that they carry out terminations of pregnancies.

The clause states that anyone who publicly "offers, announces or advertises" abortion services should be punished with up to two years in jail or pay a fine.


The issue was thrust into the spotlight in November last year when a German court fined Gießen doctor Kristina Hänel €6,000 after it found her guilty of making it clear on her practice website that she performed abortions. Hänel appealed the decision and is campaigning to raise awareness of the issue. 

“This year, we celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage in Germany," Hänel told The Local.  "The road to this achievement was not easy.  It can be assumed that abortion would have become a basic right long ago if men could become pregnant."

Meanwhile, doctors, Natascha Nicklaus and Nora Szász, went on trial in Kassel in August also accused of flouting paragraph 219a.

Some protesters at the pro-choice march in Berlin carried banners that read: ‘Paragraph 219a is so 1933', in a nod to the clause that was introduced by the Nazi party.

Can the compromise work?

Now Germany’s coalition is trying to resolve the long-running dispute with a compromise proposal - but there's no clear solution yet

The centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), now led by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known for her strong Catholic views, after Angela Merkel stepped down, wants paragraph 219a to stay.

Kramp-Karrenbauer, also referred to as AKK, posted on Twitter on Wednesday: "The protection of life, unborn and born, is of paramount importance for the CDU.” She said for this reason the advertising ban should remain in place.

Bavaria's Christian Socialists (CSU) and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) also support that the clause remains intact.

The Social Democrats (SPD), had at the start of the year initially backed a proposal by the pro-business FDP, the Greens and the Left party (Die Linke) to abolish it. But the SPD has taken a less decisive stance since they entered into a coalition agreement with the CDU.   

However, things could be changing, slowly.

On Wednesday, ministers put together a proposed compromise, which would mean the advertising ban would remain, but the law would be reformed to state more clearly how doctors and hospitals can inform patients that they carry out abortions.


"However, there must be no advertising for abortions in the future," emphasized Helge Braun of the CDU, further cementing the party’s position, according to DPA.

A bill is to be drafted by January which will then be discussed by the coalition factions.

There are also calls within the SPD for the coalition to allow MPs to vote according to their conscience, which paved the way for same-sex marriage to be legalized in Germany in 2017.

SPD, the Left party, Greens and FDP currently have a majority in the Bundestag for the abolition of the controversial advertising ban which signals that an individual vote could be successful. 

In the Bundesrat, the federal council, the ban on advertising is likely to be on the agenda sooner: the Berlin state government requested that the item be put on the agenda for Friday, according to Health Senator Dilek Kolat of the SPD.

Berlin, together with Bremen, Brandenburg, Hamburg and Thuringia, is demanding that  paragraph 219a is abolished, DPA reported.

The compromise of the federal government could be a first step, Kolat said. "I believe, however, that a complete abolition of paragraph 219a is the correct way forward."

'Proposal is a flop'

Opponents of the paragraph say the planned changes don't go far enough.

In a statement, Hänel as well as the two Kassel-based doctors accused of flouting the law said that doctors continue to be criminalized, reported DPA.

"On closer inspection, the compromise proposal does absolutely nothing," said Hänel together with Natascha Nicklaus and Nora Szasz.

They pointed to the fact that paragraph 219a would remain in force, including the threat of two years imprisonment.

The three female doctors declared that they were outraged "that women's rights are betrayed due to political power calculations" and that female doctors continue to be criminalized.

'Women are horrified when they become aware of the laws'

Hänel told The Local that her goal is for “the abolition of paragraph 219a of the German criminal code or at least to substantially change it in order to make sure that physicians who perform abortions are allowed to give information about it in public”.

Kristina Hänel at the beginning of her appeal process in October this year. Photo: DPA

Hänel said she was concerned about the country’s abortion laws because there are so many restrictions and a stigma surrounding the procedure.

She said most women are “not even aware that abortions are not legal in Germany, that they are not paid for by the health insurance and that doctors are not allowed to inform them” about it.

“They are horrified when they become aware of these restrictions,” she added.

When it comes to women finding out information about abortions in other ways, Hänel said the law causes major problems.


She said women find themselves on websites from abroad rather in Germany because there isn’t enough information readily available. Hänel added that women can end up on pro-life websites that show upsetting pictures or feature shocking stories. 

“They are shocked and hurt when they see the pictures and read the texts there” but these websites are sometimes the only place they can find addresses of doctors who perform abortions in Germany, said Hänel.

“Some women also receive addresses from the counselling centres or from their gynaecologist,” she added.

“However, this is not always the case, for example in Bavaria access to the addresses is even more restricted.”

Hänel said the issue of abortion needed to be discussed openly in Germany and without stigma.

She said she believed paragraph 219 was “unconstitutional” and she hoped the court could “clarify the legal situation and confirm that I can inform patients as a doctor".

“Information and education is my medical obligation," Hänel added. 


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