The US Supreme Court on Friday June 24th overturned a landmark 1973 ruling, called Roe v Wade, that made abortion legal in the USA.
The news has put a further spotlight on reproductive rights around the world. Readers of The Local recently contacted us to find out about the laws on abortion in Germany. We spoke to campaigners for women’s reproductive rights to help explain what you need to know.
Is abortion illegal in Germany?
It may surprise many people to know that abortion remains technically illegal in Germany, but there are circumstances in which people can end a pregnancy without facing any legal consequences.
The exceptions include: the abortion being performed within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and following mandatory counselling carried out at least three days before the procedure to terminate the pregnancy.
If there is a medical reason for an abortion, then it is not unlawful. This applies, for instance, if the pregnancy poses a danger to the life or physical and mental health of the woman. An abortion can also be carried out if tests identify that the foetus is disabled or seriously ill. Late abortions (after 12 weeks) are allowed if these special factors apply.
Abortions are also legally possible if they are the result of a criminal act – for example if the pregnancy is the result of rape.
The termination of a pregnancy is known as Abtreibung or Schwangerschaftsabbruch in German. Around 94,600 abortions were reported in Germany in 2021, according to official figures.
The rate of abortions per 1,000 women in Germany stands at 6.8 – one of the lowest in Europe alongside Switzerland. The rate of abortions stands at 19 per 1,000 women in Sweden, 17 in the UK, 16 in France and 16 in the US.
People who choose to get an abortion in Germany generally have to cover the costs of the procedure themselves.
According to the German Centre for Foreign Feminist Policy, which published information by Medical Students for Choice Berlin, abortion in Germany can cost between €200 and €650 depending on the methods involved. People can apply for financial help from their health insurance.
READ ALSO: Is abortion legal in Switzerland?
Tell me more about abortion laws in Germany…
There has been a lot of discussion about abortion in Germany in recent years. Germany’s traffic light coalition – made up of the Social Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens – recently announced plans to scrap paragraph 219a – a controversial clause on advertising abortion that has remained largely unchanged since it was brought in by the Nazis in the 1930s.
On Friday, the German parliament agreed to scrap this part of the abortion law.
It had meant that doctors in Germany were unable to advertise that they carry out terminations, and detail what methods they use – and even resulted in prosecutions, such as the high profile case of Kristina Hänel, a doctor from Giessen in western Germany.
Getting rid of this paragraph paves the way for more accessible information on abortion in Germany.
But abortion in Germany is still regulated by paragraph 218 of the criminal code, which dates back to 1871. Although the law has been amended to allow for exceptions, pro-choice campaigners in Germany want to see abortion fully legalised.
Dr Alicia Baier, chairwoman of campaign group Doctors for Choice, said the German coalition government’s plans to get rid of paragraph 219a were a step forward.
But she said much more action was needed – including removing abortion from the criminal code.
“I think German abortion laws are behind the times,” Baier told The Local. “There are many European countries which regulate abortion outside the criminal law. But in Germany we still criminalise abortion, we still have the obligatory waiting period, and obligatory counselling.”
Baier said abortion didn’t belong in criminal law. “That’s not the place for abortion, it should be regulated in some other law. Like in France – they regulate it in the public health law.”
Although the coalition government has said it wants to set up a working group to look at options for regulating abortion “outside of the framework of the criminal code”, there doesn’t seem much political appetite for big change.
Earlier this year, Katrin Helling-Plahr, FDP parliamentary group spokesperson for legal policy, told The Local: “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.”
Is it difficult for women in Germany to get an abortion in practical terms?
According to campaigners, it can be hard for people to find information on terminating pregnancy and doctors to carry it out depending on where they live.
“I think it really depends on the women themselves and where they are,” campaigner Annika Kreitlow, a research assistant with the Centre for Foreign Feminist Policy, told The Local.
“I think in Berlin it’s okay – there are a lot of doctors in Berlin and a lot of progressive people move to Berlin. But if you live in the south of Germany, like in Bavaria for example, there are cities which don’t have any doctors who provide abortions at all.
“In the northern islands of Germany, people there also have to fly to the mainland to get an abortion – sometimes they have to travel 200 or 300km to get an abortion.”
Kreitlow also said people in Germany face additional barriers because of the mandatory counselling and three-day wait.
“You have to be really consistent on finding a doctor who will do that before the 12th week. It depends on the region and also how much knowledge the person has on the situation,” she said. “If you’ve never come into contact with this and don’t know anyone who’s had an abortion, there’s a lot of fake information out there and fake websites.”
She said it’s more difficult for non-Germans.
“If you’re not a native German speaker and you come from somewhere else, it’s also very different to find the right information and distinguish what is real information and what is fake, who to trust and who to talk to,” Kreitlow said. “It’s a very difficult situation but a lot of circumstances make it even more difficult in Germany.”
How do the laws affect doctors?
Dr Baier said there was still a “big stigma” surrounding abortions in Germany – including in the medical profession. Although it is one of the most common gynaecological procedures, it is often hardly discussed at medical schools in Germany.
“In many universities – during six years of study – it’s not mentioned at all, or it’s mentioned in the context of medical law or medical ethics,” said Baier.
“It’s still very taboo in medicine. We wish it was acknowledged as part of medicine because it’s a medical procedure. In Germany, only doctors are allowed to perform them. If we don’t do it, people are left alone and that could cause a lot of health risks.”
Baier said the barriers for women in Germany looking to get an abortion, or for information on it, need to be urgently worked on.
“In some regions of Germany it’s catastrophic and people are treated very badly,” she said. “We have a modern health system but it doesn’t correspond to that at all in this area.”
Is there a large pro-life movement in Germany?
There’s a sizeable number of campaigners who are against abortion in Germany.
Pro-life events such as Marsch für das Leben (March for Life) take place every year in Berlin. In 2021 around 4,500 people attended the march, demonstrating against abortion and euthanasia laws. Counter-demonstrators from the pro-choice movement also march on the days of these events.