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On abortion, Germany is not as liberal as you may think

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By David Braneck
A woman from Poland shows a poster as she attends a protest against recent tightening of Poland's restrictive abortion law, in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany
A woman from Poland shows a poster as she attends a protest against recent tightening of Poland's restrictive abortion law, in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

When it comes to Europe's strictest abortion laws, Poland, Malta and San Marino are among the countries that tend to hog the headlines.

Yet even in progressive Germany, there are rumblings about the repressive nature of restrictions around terminations.

Now with a new socially liberal coalition edging towards forming a new government, activists are hoping abortion laws might be relaxed.

What is the law around abortions in Germany?

Paragraph 218 of Germany’s criminal code outlaws abortion, with possible penalties of up to three years in prison.

Exceptions exist if the abortion seeker receives mandatory counselling; if the pregnancy creates health risks for the woman; or if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

Nevertheless, terminating a pregnancy after twelve weeks is illegal.

“It’s not uncommon for women to realise they’re pregnant at a rather late stage, and then they’re confronted with the massive challenge of not being able to receive an abortion in Germany. Then their option is to head to the Netherlands, where abortion is legal up to the twentieth week of pregnancy,” Kersten Artus told Euronews.

Artus works on a volunteer basis for Pro-Familia Hamburg, a sexual and reproductive rights organisation, and Pro-Choice Germany, which gives legal support to doctors providing abortions.

These restrictions bring opacity to an important health issue, establishing a quasi-legality where abortion is technically illegal but permitted in some cases.

Abortion access is further limited by Paragraph 219a, Nazi-era legislation that bans advertisements for abortion services.

“Many doctors have the feeling that they’ve already got one foot in a jail cell because abortions are still criminalised and can only be provided under very specific conditions,” said Artus.

Limited abortion access and challenges for both those seeking abortions and the doctors providing them has long been the reality in Germany. Though this does not match the global perception of a nation often seen as progressive, possibly in part because of the leading role played by long time Chancellor Angela Merkel. Knowledge of restrictive reproductive legislation is often limited within Germany itself, too.

For activist Valentina Chiofalo, from the Alliance for Sexual Self-Determination, this is rooted in self-reflection that is all too often based on comparisons with other nations.

“You had this kind of myth that it’s not really a problem to get an abortion in Germany, that we’re not as conservative or religious as Poland, for instance. And you have a lot of people who just believe that and don’t really look into the law,” she told Euronews.

Controversial recent reforms to be reassessed

If many Germans were unaware of abortion’s legal status before, they should know it by now, as recent controversial reforms to Germany’s abortion laws have brought the debate to the fore.

When practitioner Kristina Hänel was fined €6,000 for stating that she provided abortions under the list of services on her website in 2017, it unleashed a wave of criticism against Paragraph 219a.

Despite widespread calls to abolish the law, including assurances to do so from the SPD, then part of a ruling coalition with the conservative CDU, the Bundestag settled for a controversial compromise in 2019, deciding instead to reform the law.

“In theory, the law was reformed, but nothing has changed practically,” reflected Artus.

The 2019 reform made it legal for practitioners to publicise that they provide abortions online, but further details, including the methods, necessary care, or risks associated with the procedure are not allowed to be posted.

The compromise was seen critically by anti-abortion pressure groups and many religious organisations. Germany’s Conference of Catholic Bishops claimed the reforms were redundant.

“In our view, lists that provide information about providers and methods of abortions would be unnecessary, as these details are best shared in the privacy of a counsellor’s office. Since counselling is mandatory for anyone seeking an abortion, this information is already available,” said the organisation in a press release prior to the reform.

Pro-abortion activists like Artus and Chiofalo argue this means few doctors feel comfortable posting whether or not they provide abortions, while it offers little help for those seeking the procedure if critical information is not included.

219a’s shelf life could be limited

Ever-louder cries for Paragraph 219a to be abolished look set to finally be heeded, thanks to the likely arrival of what looks to be a socially liberal "traffic light" coalition.

Nicknamed so because of each party's colours, the prospective coalition consists of the centre-left Social Democrats (red), the liberal FDP (yellow) and the Greens.

Talks between parties that bridge a fairly wide ideological spectrum can be like trying to complete a puzzle with three unique sets of pieces. And while finding common ground on how precisely to fight climate change, or compromise between the FDP’s pro-business DNA and the SPD’s campaign promises to raise taxes on the rich seems impossible, the three parties do largely converge on one vital issue: advancing reproductive rights.

“We don’t hope that the new government strikes down Paragraph 219a, we expect it to happen, “ said Artus. “Especially given the role the SPD played in ensuring that it wasn’t abolished years ago… but really, we’ll believe it once it’s officially happened.”

Though the outgoing centre-right Christian Democrats did not include protecting Paragraphs 219a in its campaign platform, Markus Söder, head of Bavarian sister party the CSU, recently spoke out against striking it down.

“Abolishing Paragraph 219a is something we wouldn’t do. I can only warn against backing out of this compromise on abortion rights,” Söder told the German newspaper Bild.

The three parties in Germany's prospective coalition are all in favour of abolishing 219a. Still, even if that makes finding details about abortion services easier, it won’t change the quasi-legal, criminalized status of abortion generally.

“We want [219a] to go, but it’s also important that it is not the only thing that needs to go. Sometimes there is a bit of a proxy war about the issue around 219a, and it’s important we get rid of it, but also that 218 goes as well. Maybe even more important,” Chiofalo said.

The biggest stumbling block to abolishing Paragraph 218 and keeping abortion out of the criminal code entirely is the liberal FDP, the only incoming party that didn’t commit to repealing the law in their election platform.

“The SPD and Greens are on board with striking down 218. But the FDP is more tricky. Which is weird because the SPD are a liberal party and love freedom and freedom of choice, but when it comes to abortion they’re kind of conservative,” said Chiofalo.

Activist groups are continuing to pressure all three parties as coalition negotiations unfold.

For Germany’s reproductive rights activists, abolishing Paragraph 219a would be an important victory, but as long as Paragraph 218 remains, they’ll have further work to do to ensure that reproductive rights are seen as within the domain of healthcare provision, and not criminal acts.

“That’s one of the main wishes we have, that abortions must be seen as healthcare for women, not something so outside of that framework,” said Chiofalo.

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