Germany tries to stop pro-life demonstrators harassing women seeking abortions

Protestors at a demonstration against the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in front of the Brandenburg Gate near the US embassy in Berlin in July 2022.
Protestors at a demonstration against the US Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in front of the Brandenburg Gate near the US embassy in Berlin in July 2022. Copyright AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
By Giulia Carbonaro
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As the number of pro-life vigils in front of Germany’s family planning centres and clinics grows, the country is trying to prevent these places from becoming the stage of a US-style war for abortion rights.

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It was March 2017 when Claudia Hohmann, director of the Pro Familia family planning centre in Frankfurt, saw anti-abortion demonstrators show up with signs and flyers outside the door of her workplace for the very first time.

“The pro-life movement calls them vigils, as their purpose is to prevent people from having abortions and ‘save’ children,” she told Euronews. “Since then, the vigils in front of our centre have taken place twice a year for forty days.”

The Pro Familia centre headed for the past nine years Hohmann sits in a quiet, wealthy area of west Frankfurt, near the city’s botanical garden. Photos of the most recent vigil held in front of the centre in September show a pro-life group holding pictures of foetuses and the Virgin Mary, an odd sight in the peaceful neighbourhood.

While anti-abortion demonstrations are common in the US, in recent years vigils like the one held by the Euro Pro Life association in Frankfurt for 40 days in October and November last year, have become more common across Europe and in Germany.

That’s why on 24 January, Germany’s family minister Lisa Paus announced a draft law that would prevent anti-abortion demonstrators from approaching or harassing visitors within a 100-metre radius of abortion clinics and family planning centres in the country.

Anti-abortion flyers and posters will also be forbidden within the same distance of these institutions. Anyone found in violation of this law, if passed, could be punished with a fine of up to €5,000.

Paus, a member of the Green Party, said that the legislation was necessary to avoid women being faced with “hatred and agitation” while seeking advice during a potentially delicate and difficult moment. She told German broadcaster ZDF that the draft struck a balance between freedom of expression and the right to freedom of assembly.

A pro-life vigil in front of a family planning centre in Pennsylvania as part of the 40 Days For Life Campaign in March 2010.
A pro-life vigil in front of a family planning centre in Pennsylvania as part of the 40 Days For Life Campaign in March 2010.AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The growing influence of the pro-life movement in Europe

While a small group of demonstrators standing in front of a family planning centre for 40 days might seem like a small problem, especially for a country as big as Germany, Hohmann said that the influence of anti-abortion organisations is growing in the country.

“​​The anti-abortion scene is very active and connected with extreme right politics and the anti-queer and anti-sex-education movement,” Hohmann said. “[In recent years] we had vigils taking place in Wiesbaden, Pforzheim and Munich, 1000-Cross-Marches in Berlin and other cities, as well as demonstrations of so-called ‘worried parents’.”

The idea of holding a demonstration for 40 days, which is what Germany’s anti-abortion association Euro Pro-Life has been doing for years in Frankfurt now, is not really an original one. It’s coming, in fact, from the US

“40 Days For Life” is a grassroots movement that was started in 2004 in Texas and has since expanded to more than 60 countries across the world, many of which are in Europe, including Germany, Spain, Ireland, the UK, Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic.

The movement’s tactic is to stand outside abortion clinics and family planning centres for 40 days in an attempt to raise awareness of what it considers “the tragic reality of abortion” and to call for “repentance” for those who work at the facilities.

Thanks to the fact that the movement works like a franchise, getting funds from members across the world who pay for materials, support and training, 40 Days For Life has been able to reach as far as it has now, bringing the US culture wars to Europe.

Punishment, shame and guilt

In Germany, a pregnant person cannot get an abortion before visiting one of those centres. That’s because abortion is technically illegal in Germany, but it’s possible up to 12 weeks after conception if the pregnant person obtains a counselling certificate at least 3 days before the procedure.

Pro Familia, which has centres all across Germany, is certified to issue such certificates. That’s why it has become a target for anti-abortion activists.

Tomislav Čunović of 40 Days For Life told Euronews that the law proposed by the German government is “unconstitutional” should it be passed the way it is now. “It is anti-freedom and anti-democratic. It’s a shame for the German international reputation,” Čunović said.

The anti-abortion activist defended the vigils organised by his organisation saying they are “a prayer for the unborn children who are dying or threatened with death through abortion, and also for their relatives” and claiming their motivation is “peaceful and legitimate.”

But that’s not what those who work at the family planning centres say.

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“The demonstrators watch our clients, sing, pray and show pictures - for example of babies, pregnant bellies or with expressions like: ‘Thanks, Mum, for letting me live’ or ‘Abortion is no solution’,” Hohmann said, adding how this can deeply hurt people seeking to terminate their pregnancies.

“People with an unwanted pregnancy feel shame and guilt anyway, and need an understanding, trustful and comforting setting,” she explained.

“This is important to be able to listen carefully and to understand the information given by the counsellor. The feeling of anonymity is also important. The people in front of the centre disturb this setting by purpose and damage the trust in the legally prescribed counselling,” Hohmann said. “Research has made clear that the psychological problems in connection with an abortion go back to the punishment-shame-and guilt-context in society.”

“The regular presence of anti-abortion protesters outside the counselling centre is a psychological burden for our staff,” Beate Martin, head of the Pro Familia advice centre in Münster, said.

“The counselling itself is also disrupted,” added her colleague, pregnancy counsellor Barbara Wittel. “Unwanted pregnant women and others seeking help on the way to a counselling session perceive the presence as disturbing and unpleasant. They cannot avoid being influenced and confronted by anti-abortion activists. It is then no longer possible to speak of a neutral counselling situation, as women are legally entitled to.”

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For Hohmann and Pro Familia, it’s necessary to have a country-wide solution to forbid this sort of action.

“Local solutions have been overturned many times,” she told Euronews. “But the law has to be clear and strict and must interdict all actions that want to defame and unsettle pregnant people, doctors and counsellors and thereby improve the access to the best possible counselling and medical care.”

“It is the task of federal policy to protect the personal rights of those seeking counselling, and to do so nationwide,” said Pro Familia Federal Chairwoman Monika Börding.

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