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HEALTH

Do Germany’s planned changes to abortion laws go far enough?

A long-awaited change to Germany’s punitive abortion laws is underway, but some believe it stops far short of what's needed. Here’s what you need to know.

Do Germany's planned changes to abortion laws go far enough?
A woman receives a consultation at a catholic pregnancy advice centre in Baden-Württemburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marijan Murat

In January this year, Germany’s traffic light coalition – made up of the Social Democrats, Free Democrats and Green party – announced its intention to undertake “the biggest reform of family law in several decades”, introducing sweeping protections for same-sex couples and non-traditional families.

Centre-stage in these reforms was a drastic overhaul of Germany’s outdated reproductive laws – stripping away a controversial clause on advertising abortion that has remained unchanged since the 1930s.

Discussing the move, Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) said the current state of abortion law in Germany created an “unacceptable situation” where doctors faced criminal proceedings for trying to help people stay informed. “That doesn’t belong in our times,” he said.

On the face of it, it seems like the long decades of feminist campaigning has paid off. But a closer look at Germany’s current abortion laws suggests that the planned reforms may only scratch the surface. 

What’s are the current abortion laws – and how will they change? 

Once of the most controversial aspects of current abortion law in Germany is Paragraph 219a, a Nazi-era clause forbidding doctors from “advertising” the availability of abortion services or sharing information on the procedure with patients. 

The government has promised to dispense with this paragraph and, earlier this year, Buschmann announced that the cabinet had agreed on a draft bill to do just that. With this initial move to allow doctors to provide information to pregnant patients, the long road to reform has already begun.

READ ALSO: Why Germany is planning to overhaul abortion information laws

However, the much-publicised and in-the-works repeal of Paragraph 219a is only one piece of the many barriers to abortion in Germany. At present, the coalition has not announced a formalised intention to abolish Paragraph 218, which continues to fundamentally criminalise abortion, leaving pregnant women to manoeuvre within tightly-defined exceptions to the law.

A pro-choice protester in Berlin wears a mask with "away with §218" on it.

A pro-choice protester in Berlin wears a mask with “away with Paragraph 218” on it. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

The prospect of changing this status quo remains murky, couched in extremely careful language. The coalition contract does clearly state that access to cost-free abortions should be a part of reliable healthcare. But when it comes to fully decriminalising the act of abortion, the document only announces that a commission on reproductive self-determination and reproductive medicine will examine options for regulating abortion “outside of the framework of the criminal code”. No concrete promises there.

Katrin Helling-Plahr, FDP parliamentary group spokesperson for legal policy, was actively involved in negotiating this section of the coalition contract. Plahr has long advocated for more progressive laws on reproductive medicine, and greeted the demise of Paragraph 219a as long overdue

Responding to a request for comment on the coalition’s cautious language, she reiterated plans to appoint an exploratory commission, but made clear that her party did not necessarily regard a total decriminalisation of abortion as legally or ethically viable. 

We Free Democrats are of the opinion that Paragraph 218, as the result of a long societal discussion, represents a successful compromise with regards to protecting the life of the foetus and the right to self-determination of the pregnant person,” she wrote.

Abortion access remains fraught

Meanwhile, individuals seeking to terminate a pregnancy in Germany are often left with little choice but to travel abroad for care, to one of the many European nations with fewer barriers to abortion. 

As long as Paragraph 218 stands, those seeking legal abortions in Germany face mandatory and often aggressively pro-natalist counselling, a waiting period and strict time limitations, with abortions only available in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. And even when eligible for a legal abortion, finding a provider to perform it is another matter entirely. 

A recent story from investigative news site CORRECTIV.Lokal showed the barriers faced by individuals seeking to terminate a pregnancy in Germany, including poor access to abortion providers, discriminatory treatment, patchy insurance coverage of the costs and extensive bureaucratic burdens. As the Green parliamentarian Ulle Schauws pointed out, despite more readily available information on performing doctors after the removal of 219a, the actual sparse landscape of abortion coverage won’t automatically become any more densely populated.

The difficulty of accessing contraception 

Abortion access isn’t the only thorn in the side of folks who would rather not be pregnant. 

In 2015, Germany finally made the morning-after pill available over the counter, without a prescription. Though many people are able to obtain it without too much hassle, there’s evidence to suggest that different pharmacies handle the situation differently – with some taking a more invasive approach. 

When US citizen Courtney Harrison tried to get emergency contraception at a German pharmacy, she found the experience intensely personal and far removed from the ease of obtaining most other over-the-counter medications. Before being given the medication, she was brought back to a separate room and had to speak with multiple staff members. 

“They had to ask a bunch of questions and I had to fill out a form,” she said, questioning the necessity of sharing “intimate details” with two different people just to obtain an over-the-counter medication. 

A woman holds the morning-after pill at a pharmacy

A woman holds the morning-after pill at a pharmacy. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Benjamin Nolte

“I hope people who need Plan B here in Germany don’t face judgement when they have to personal answer questions about their reproductive health and sex history. I felt embarrassed and overwhelmed,” she added.

While reforms to access to contraception aren’t specifically on the cards, the traffic light coalition has pledged to ease the financial burden of obtaining it.

In the coalition pact, the parties say they want to give health insurance companies the ability to cover the cost of regular contraception “as a statutory benefit”, as well as making free contraceptives available for those on low incomes. Emergency contraception is already covered by health insurance – but only after a visit to the GP. 

They also want to invest in research for contraceptives “for all genders” – presumably including the much-awaited pill for men. 

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

Do the reforms go far enough?

Though the traffic-light coalitions have made pledges that go far beyond anything posited by the previous conservative-led government, some campaigners question whether the changes set out will be enough to make a meaningful difference. 

At present, potential expense, legal issues and a mountain of bureaucracy often limit women’s access to reproductive healthcare. That, and the ever-debated Paragraph 218, that continues to consider abortion a criminal offence. 

“In Germany my body belongs, de facto, to the state,” journalist and campaigner Mithu Sanyal said in an interview with Deutschland Funk. “You can see that in a law like Paragraph 218: the state can decide whether I get an abortion or not.”

Though the coalition has also pledged to make abortions free of charge and tackle the information and access issues, the legal issues remain a sticking point. 

Speaking to broadcaster RBB24, Sabrina Odebrecht, who works at a pregnancy advice centre in Berlin, said she thought it was right for women to be offered counselling before an abortion. But, she added, they should have the right to choose whether to accept it without fearing legal consequences. 

“I think it is wrong to criminalise the procedure in principle, to criminalise and frighten women and doctors,” Odebrecht said. “That is why Paragraph 218 should finally be dropped.”

So despite the incoming changes, the debates surrounding abortion law are far from over. 

Member comments

  1. I wonder are these pro choice people and ministers the same ones who want to force people into vaccination?
    Everyone should have a choice. But I dont think abortion should be touted as a cure all. Decriminalise it and allow the parties involved to openly discuss options. It just can not be made too easy it is a very serious thing. Not a quick fix.

  2. Florida just changed their law and I find it reasonable. It gives women an option, but not an open-ended one that takes into account fetal development.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany’s state elections

German state elections don't tell us everything about the public mood, but the past few votes have revealed some pretty clear winners and losers. While support for the SPD is flagging, the Greens are growing in stature by the day, writes Brian Melican.

Why the Greens are the real winners of Germany's state elections

It’s one of the peculiarities of Germany’s federal system that we’re almost never more than six months away from an election being held somewhere. Alongside the national elections (Bundestagswahl) usually every four years, each of the 16 states also hold ballots (Landtagswahl) on varying cycles; then there are local and mayoral elections, too. As such, rolling campaigning and more-or-less continuous election analysis are a part of life here: “What does Election X say about Government Y?” is a question you will always hear being asked somewhere.

Nevertheless, regional elections have a habit of clustering – and generally come at points when national governments would rather not have people poring over electoral data. And this year, after barely six months in office, Olaf Scholz’ novel tri-partite traffic-light coalition has already been faced with three regional elections – in Saarland (27th March), last week in Schleswig-Holstein (8th May), and yesterday in North-Rhine Westphalia (15th May). On a regional level, the popularity of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) has already been thoroughly tested. 

Understanding state elections

The key thing to remember about German regional elections are that they both are and aren’t about national politics. Firstly, here’s how they aren’t. At a basic level, these regional elections are simply about voters choosing a government to deal with state-level remits (mainly health, education, and housing). They will vote first and foremost on these issues.

Personality politics are also important: long-serving German state premiers frequently garner the unofficial honorific Landesvater or Landesmutter –  literally: ‘father/mother of the state’ – and benefit from high personal approval ratings, allowing them to withstand changes in mood at national level. So it is by no means infrequent for voters to return completely different parties in regional than at national elections. By way of example, while Olaf Scholz, SPD, remained a popular Landesvater figure in Hamburg, Merkel’s CDU still won more Hamburg votes at national elections.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Sunday’s state parliament vote in NRW is important for German politics

Then again, regional elections also are about national politics. That’s because they never take place in a vacuum (except for in Bavaria, of course, where everyone always votes CSU). Even the most beloved of state premiers faces an uphill struggle if their party is currently making a hash of things in Berlin. What is more, the larger and the more representative the Bundesland, the more results of its elections can show swings in voter mood which may be of national relevance.

The Greens’ slow ascent from their mid-2000s funk to their current swagger began in Baden-Württemberg: winning control of this state populated by 11 million people and many of Germany’s top industrialists showed that voters trusted them to be part of a government. That set the ball rolling and by the time of last year’s national election, the Greens were already in power in half of federal states. Incidentally, it is often overlooked that state governments make up the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, which can accept or refuse laws made by the Bundestag. So shifts in power here can be of national relevance.

This dichotomy has the predictable effect that, in the aftermath of every Landtagswahl, the losing parties usually claim that it was simply a regional ballot with nothing to say about national politics while the winning parties play up the significance at federal level.

Olaf Scholz and Thomas Kutschaty

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) congratulates Thomas Kutschaty, SPD candidate in North Rhine-Westphalia, after the party wins 26.7 percent of the vote. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

An SPD disaster 

This is why it is very bad news for Olaf Scholz and the SPD that their only victory in spring 2022’s three Landtagswahlen was in dinky little Saarland, a state whose population is smaller than that of a major city like Cologne and whose local politics are so marked by rivalries and infighting as to have little-to-no relevance nationally. Despite winning an absolute majority in the regional parliament at Saarbrücken (a rare feat in proportional representation), there was no way the SPD could claim a national bearing – and, to its credit, didn’t try to do so either.

In Schleswig-Holstein, the SPD wasn’t expected to unseat the CDU’s Daniel Günther, a likeable and well-liked premier coming to the end of five years at the helm of a surprisingly successful Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, the national relevance was relatively low: Schleswig-Holstein has only 3 million inhabitants and few large towns and cities. Nevertheless, losing over half its seats while the Greens and CDU gained by the same amount was not a good result for the SPD.

What was disastrous, however, was last night’s result in North-Rhine Westphalia. With a population the size of the neighbouring Netherlands (17 million) and everything from Germany’s largest urban conurbation down to isolated mountain regions, NRW is often considered a microcosm of the country as a whole. As something of a swing state, parties which succeed here often go on to win the next national election (if they aren’t already in government).

READ ALSO:

What is more, unlike in Schleswig-Holstein, NRW was the SDP’s to win. Until last year, its premier was the luckless Armin Laschet (remember him?), who plumbed popularity depths in his failed bid to become Chancellor. He then left a badly-damaged CDU-FDP administration to Hendrik Wüst, a successor whose profile, if he had one at all, was defined by various low-level corruption scandals (including a regrettable incident where he sold slots with the then-NRW premier, Jürgen Rüttgers, to high-paying commercial lobbyists…).

Hendrik Wüst (CDU)

Re-elected NRW state premier Hendrik Wüst (CDU) celebrates his victory. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

Even if Wüst proved to be an unexpectedly good campaigner and the SPD’s Thomas Kutschaty remained oddly faceless, the fact that Olaf Scholz himself got involved and that the SPD still ended up with its worst showing in NRW ever is nothing less than a serious defeat for both the Chancellor and his party – one which, in my view, underlines how Scholz has not yet lived up to expectations.

Nevertheless, he is in luck. Firstly, the electoral cycle means that this upset is occurring at the beginning of his term; there will be time to recover. Secondly, although Wüst gets first crack at forming a government, the Greens are his only real potential partner – and will take a lot of courting. NRW Greens are on the more left-wing end of the spectrum and will play the field, potentially trying to usher in a mini traffic-light coalition in Düsseldorf if it looks feasible later.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Growing support for Greens

So after the post-Merkel rout, the CDU has scored an important and much-needed victory, but harnessing it to get momentum nationally may yet prove difficult. Indeed, it’s the Greens who have come out of the last two weekends with a new swing in their step. Following a disappointing national election last year, they have once again hit their stride, due in no small part to the Ukraine reminding voters of why renewable energy is important on the one hand and the impressive figures cut by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock in government on the other.

For the FDP, things are not looking so good. Despite negotiating a disproportionately high amount of their manifesto into last year’s agreement, they are suffering the fate of many a junior coalition partner: a lack of profile. On strictly regional terms, they lost votes to the popular Daniel Günther in Schleswig-Holstein (perhaps unavoidably, despite a good record as part of his coalition) and to the not-yet-popular Hendrik Wüst (following lacklustre performance in government in Düsseldorf).

Greens party posters NRW

Posters featuring Greens candidate Mona Neubaur highlight the link between fossil fuels and Russia’s authoritarian leadership. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Worryingly for Christian Lindner, however, this may be harbinger of history repeating itself. Essentially, FDP voters tend to get enthusiastic for a business-friendly go-getter type who promises to lower taxes and slash regulation, only to later turn their back on him when, once part of a coalition government, he proves unable to deliver the small-state free-for-all promised. That’s what happened to Guido Westerwelle in the 2009-2013 administration, in any case.

There is, however, one bit of unadulterated good news for all parties and indeed our country as a whole: the AfD lost vote share everywhere. The populist outfit didn’t even make it into parliament in Schleswig-Holstein and only just scraped in in NRW. It would seem that, in times of crisis, voters don’t want to add to the list of potential disasters by putting populists anywhere near power. This is a hypothesis we’ll be able to test in just under six months’ time, by the way, when Lower-Saxony goes to the polls on 9th October. 

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