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HEALTH

Germany consigns Nazi-era abortion law to history

Germany's parliament on Friday agreed to remove a Nazi-era law that limits the information doctors and clinics can provide about abortion.

Pro-choice demonstrators hold a sign calling for Germany to get rid of paragraph 219a from the abortion law at a demo in Berlin in 2019.
Pro-choice demonstrators hold a sign calling for Germany to get rid of paragraph 219a from the abortion law at a demo in Berlin in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Ralf Hirschberger

One of the most controversial sections of the penal code, Paragraph 219a, prohibits the “promotion” of abortion, a crime punishable by “up to two years of imprisonment or a fine”.

The decision to finally consign the law to history came almost eight decades after its adoption in 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler had taken power.

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

“It is high time,” Justice Minister Marco Buschmann said in parliament.

It is “absurd” and “no longer in step with the times” that doctors are not allowed to provide complete information on abortion while “every troll and conspiracy theorists” are free to spout their ideas about terminating pregnancies.

The ruling coalition of Buschmann’s Free Democrats, as well as the Social Democrats and the Greens, had made a pledge to remove the law when they signed up to govern together.

The opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the far-right AfD voted against scrapping the law.

Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker of the CDU argued that while a woman may face difficulties because of an unwanted pregnancy, “we are also thinking of the child’s right to live”. She pointed this out as the “key difference” between the ruling coalition and her party.

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats, said the move was “overdue”.

“It cannot be (the case) that doctors are criminalised when they inform women factually about the medical possibilities of abortions,” he said.

Despite dating back to Germany’s darkest history, the law was applied until recently. Courts handed out penalties to doctors for offering information on the internet about pregnancy terminations.

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

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.

Her legal battle sparked a media storm and turned a spotlight on the law.

Welcoming the decision, Hänel wrote on Twitter that it was “a great feeling: 219a becomes history”.

“We can at last fully meet our professional obligation to inform thoroughly. Those affected can finally find factual and serious information on the internet.”

A pro-choice counter protester at the "March for Life" demo against abortion in Berlin in September 2020.

A pro-choice counter protester at the “March for Life” demo in Berlin in September 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Obstacles remain

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

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

Under pressure from such campaigners, many medical practitioners 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.

With Paragraph 219a now out of the way, some campaigners are now turning their eye to another related law – Paragraph 218 – which outlaws abortions unless they are carried out within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and only under certain circumstances.

READ ALSO: Reader question – is abortion illegal in Germany?

Abortion is ‘taboo’

Women wishing to have an abortion must have an obligatory consultation at an approved centre.

The aim of this discussion 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.

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

The subject is still 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.

Heidi Reichinnek of the far-left Linke party said Paragraph 218 remained a “fundamental problem” and must be struck off the statute book.

For now, Buschmann said both pieces of law should be treated distinctly. But Minister for Women Lisa Paus said it was important to “talk about 218”.

READ ALSO: Do Germany’s planned changes on abortion go far enough?

By Hui Min Neo

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HEALTH

WHO expects more monkeypox-related deaths in Europe

The World Health Organization's European office said Saturday that more monkeypox-related deaths can be expected, following reports of the first fatalities outside Africa, while stressing that severe complications were still be rare.

WHO expects more monkeypox-related deaths in Europe

“With the continued spread of monkeypox in Europe, we will expect to see more deaths,” Catherine Smallwood, Senior Emergency Officer at WHO Europe, said in a statement.

Smallwood emphasised that the goal needs to be “interrupting transmission quickly in Europe and stopping this outbreak”.

However, Smallwood stressed that in most cases the disease heals itself without the need for treatment.

“The notification of deaths due to monkeypox does not change our assessment of the outbreak in Europe. We know that although self-limiting in most cases, monkeypox can cause severe complications,” Smallwood noted.

The Spanish health ministry recorded a second monkeypox-related death on Saturday, a day after Spain and Brazil reported their first fatalities.

The announcements marked what are thought to be the first deaths linked to the current outbreak outside Africa.

Spanish authorities would not give the specific cause of death for the fatalities pending the outcome of an autopsy, while Brazilian authorities underlined that the man who died had “other serious conditions”.

“The usual reasons patients might require hospital care include help in managing pain, secondary infections, and in a small number of cases the need to manage life-threatening complications such as encephalitis,” Smallwood explained.

According to the WHO, more than 18,000 cases have been detected throughout the world outside of Africa since the beginning of May, with the majority of them in Europe.

The WHO last week declared the monkeypox outbreak a global health emergency.

As cases surge globally, the WHO on Wednesday called on the group currently most affected by the virus — men who have sex with men — to limit their sexual partners.

Early signs of the disease include a high fever, swollen lymph glands and a chickenpox-like rash.

The disease usually heals by itself after two to three weeks, sometimes taking a month.

A smallpox vaccine from Danish drug maker Bavarian Nordic, marketed under the name Jynneos in the United States and Imvanex in Europe, has also been found to protect against monkeypox.

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