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Why Germany is planning to overhaul abortion information laws

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AFP/The Local - [email protected]
Why Germany is planning to overhaul abortion information laws
A pro-choice counter protester at the "March for Life" demo against abortion in Berlin in September 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

After years of controversy and criticism from gynaecologists, Germany is planning to scrap a Nazi-era law that limits information on abortion, while access to the procedure in the country remains beset by obstacles.

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The Social Democrats, Greens and the Free Democrats, ruling together as a government since December, promised in their coalition agreement to scratch one of the most controversial sections of the penal code from the statute books.

Paragraph 219a, adopted in 1933 shortly after Adolf Hitler had taken power, prohibits the "promotion" of abortion, a crime punishable by "up to two years of imprisonment or a fine".

It is on this basis that courts have in recent years handed out penalties to medical professionals offering information on pregnancy terminations on the internet.

In some cases, the sites offered a simple statement that the gynaecologist carries out abortions, with no further details.

But an end came a step closer after the Justice Minister Marco Buschmann put forward draft legislation in January to remove the paragraph, though it has yet to be voted on in the Bundestag.

Buschmann said: "Women who are considering terminating their pregnancy are in a painful life situation. They want to inform themselves of the facts, and are seeking counselling on methods, risks and potential complications. We would like to facilitate this search for counselling independently of doctors’ appointments.

"Doctors should be able to provide information on pregnancy terminations to the public without incurring potential liability under criminal law.

Counter-protesters hold posters opposing the "March for Life" demo in Berlin in September 2021.

Counter-protesters hold posters opposing the "March for Life" demo in Berlin in September 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

"We see women who do not react lightly to the burdensome question of pregnancy termination – rather, they deal responsibly with the situation.

"Those who count on people responding responsibly to difficult personal life questions must repeal section 219a of the Criminal Code. We are creating spaces for self-responsible freedom. This is the task of legal policy."

Buschmann said a commission will also be tasked with reviewing the regulations for pregnancy termination outside the scope of the criminal code. 

Strictly limited

Among the doctors prosecuted in recent years is Kristina Hänel, a general practitioner from Giessen in western Germany, who became the face of the campaign to ditch the law after being fined €6,000 ($6,558).

Her legal misadventures created a sensation in the media, reminding Germans that abortion remains severely restricted in law.

The many pitfalls for practitioners dissuade doctors from offering the procedure in a country that was at the forefront of the women's rights movement in the 1970s.

In June 2019, two gynaecologists in Berlin, Bettina Gaber and Verena Weyer, were each also handed two-thousand-euro fines for the same offence.

Hänel told The Local that the law reform was a "step forward". She said there was no change in the status of her case yet - it is to be discussed in the constitutional court unless a reprieve is announced following any law change. 

German gynaecologist Kristina Hänel attends a regional court hearing regarding her case in December 2019.

German gynaecologist Kristina Hänel attends a regional court hearing regarding her case in December 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

But she said the most important thing is that doctors will be able to publish information online so that women can make an informed decision. 

In Germany, a woman wishing to have an abortion in the first 12 weeks of her pregnancy must have an obligatory consultation at an approved centre.

The aim of this dialogue is to "encourage the woman to continue her pregnancy", even if in the end the choice was up to her. After the consultation patients must wait through a "reflection period" of three days.

Pro-choice campaigners in Germany generally also call for paragraph 218 of the criminal code - which effectively makes abortion illegal - to be abolished.

There are exceptions, such as if the woman has the mandatory counselling, if the pregnancy creates health risks, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

Meanwhile, except in exceptional circumstances, such as a risk to the life of the mother or in the event of rape, abortions are not paid for by health insurance, despite sometimes costing hundreds of euros.

Hänel added: "We hope that we can change more in future. But at this moment our battle is concentrated on the improvement of the women’s situation."

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Anti-abortion militants, who organise themselves online, are behind most of the complaints made against medical professionals, while one activist was recently convicted for comparing abortion to the Holocaust.

Under pressure from campaigners, many medics have removed all relevant information from their websites and have declined to be included in family planning lists shared with women looking to end their pregnancies.

The outcry that came in response to the prosecutions led Angela Merkel's government to relax legislation slightly, allowing gynaecologists and hospitals to indicate online that they offered abortions.

EXPLAINED: Germany's plans to soften controversial abortion laws

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Specifying what methods were used was, however, still prohibited, a compromise solution that did not satisfy practitioners.

Opposition from within Merkel's own Christian Democrats had prevented the paragraph from being struck from the penal code completely.

Removing the paragraph would mean no longer being able to tell "whether the advertisement came from a cosmetic clinic or an abortion clinic", said Merkel's party colleague Helge Braun, one of her closest aides and who is himself a doctor.

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

Around 100,000 abortions are carried out in Germany every year, although the number has gone down in recent years.

The subject is still a taboo in Germany, according to a number of gynaecologists, and can be like an obstacle course for patients, particularly in traditionally Catholic Bavaria.

In some parts of the vast southern state, no hospitals offer the procedure, with many people opting to cross the border to Austria instead.

With reporting by Yannick PASQUET

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