After years of turmoil, Germany eases abortion laws

The deputies of the Bundestag are preparing to put an end to one of the most heated controversies of recent years in Germany. This Thursday, they should vote to delete paragraph 219a of the Penal Code, which criminalizes “advertising” on the practice of abortions by gynecologists. Supported by the three coalition parties, social democrats, ecologists and liberals, this reform is guaranteed to pass.

If the subject seems technical, it has not stopped making headlines since 2017 and the conviction of a 6000 euro fine of a gynecologist from Giessen, in Hesse. Kristina Hänel had indicated on her website to practice voluntary terminations of pregnancy (IVG) and provided information on this subject. At the time, this was completely prohibited by law. In 2019, the Penal Code was amended to allow practitioners to write on their site that they offered abortions. However, it is impossible to say more about the techniques used or the cost of this medical act. Since then, Kristina Hänel has spearheaded the fight for the repeal of Section 219a and seized the Constitutional Court last year.

“Un anachronism and an injustice”

The new government of Olaf Scholz took office six months ago and has made this reform one of its priorities. He considers that this paragraph 219a hinders “access to professional medical care and to the free choice of doctor” and “infringes the right to sexual and reproductive self-determination”. “On the Internet, every conspiracy theorist and every person conveying fake news are allowed to spread any nonsense about abortions”, noted the Liberal Marco Buschmann, Federal Minister of Justice, during a parliamentary debate in May. “On the other hand, qualified doctors, guardians of science and facts, are prohibited from providing factual information. It’s absurd. It is an anachronism and an injustice”, he launched in the hemicycle of the Bundestag.

Fear of the “trivialization” of abortions

The text which will be approved on Thursday plans to subject abortions to the same advertising rules as medicines and to rehabilitate doctors convicted by the courts.

The opposition comes from Christian Democrat MPs (CDU/CSU), the far right (AfD) and the Catholic and Protestant Churches, for whom the ban on abortion advertising ensures the right ” of unborn life. They also warn of the risks of “trivialization” of abortions, the number of which is around 100,000 per year. A stable and relatively low figure in international comparison.

Abortion illegal in principle

For the Berlin gynecologist Christiane Tennhardt, this reform is a “success” and “a relief”. This activist hopes that the reform will be a step towards the general lifting of the criminalization of abortions, symbolized according to her by article 218 of the Penal Code.

In Germany, abortions remain illegal, except under certain very specific conditions. Women must be the originator of the request and not be more than twelve weeks pregnant. They must also submit to an interview with a family planning center approved by the State, obtain its approval and then respect a three-day break before resorting to abortion. In the event of rape, the preliminary interview is however not required, and in the event of danger for the mother, the IVG can be practiced at any time.

“Paragraph 218 must disappear”, believes Christiane Tennhardt, for whom “everything is done in Germany to make abortion complicated”. Without forgetting that “an illegal act cannot be taught at the university”, she recalls. A member of the Doctors for Choice association, this practitioner pleads for the practice of abortions to find a real place in the university curriculum for medical students, which is not currently the case.

“The stigma remains strong”

Deleting paragraph 218 is not on the agenda of the German government, however, although some in the coalition and in the opposition are in favor of it. The left-wing party Die Linke recalls that Germany is not following the guidelines of the World Health Organization, which recommends the end of the criminalization of abortions and the lifting of the waiting period for patients.

Christiane Tennhardt has no illusions, however. “Even if these two paragraphs disappeared from the Penal Code, everything would not be perfect. The stigmatization of women and doctors remains strong and it is difficult to find a practitioner in rural areas, especially in Bavaria,” she recalls. Across the Rhine, the number of doctors performing abortions has been halved in twenty years. “It is difficult to change society by law, but it is a good thing that the debate is taking place,” she said. “It makes younger generations aware that abortion is a right that must be preserved. Everything can go so fast. Poland and the United States are there to remind us of that.”

Read also: Access to abortion around the world, deciphered in four graphs

Leave a Comment