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Centre-stage in these reforms was a drastic overhaul of Germany’s outdated reproductive laws – stripping away a controversial clause on advertising abortion that has remained unchanged since the 1930s.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