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Germany scraps Nazi-era abortion law, just hours before US Supreme Court ruling

Bundestag removes one of the most controversial sections of German penal code prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of abortion, a crime punishable by up to 2 years of imprisonment or a fine

People carry crosses during a silent protest against abortion in front of the Berlin Cathedral in Berlin, September 26, 2009. (AP Photo/Franka Bruns, File)
People carry crosses during a silent protest against abortion in front of the Berlin Cathedral in Berlin, September 26, 2009. (AP Photo/Franka Bruns, File)

BERLIN (AFP) — Germany’s parliament on Friday removed a Nazi-era law that limits the information doctors and clinics can provide about abortion.

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 nine decades after its adoption in 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler had taken power.

“It is high time,” Justice Minister Marco Buschmann told 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 theorist” is free to spout views about terminating pregnancies, Buschmann said.

The Bundestag decision came just hours before the US Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion in the country.

German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann speaks during a statement following the weekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, May 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Germany’s ruling coalition, comprising Buschmann’s Free Democrats, 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.

Despite dating back to the darkest chapter in German 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 gynecologists carried out abortions, with no further details.

Among the doctors prosecuted in recent years is Kristina Haenel, a general practitioner from Giessen in western Germany, who became the face of the campaign to ditch the law after being fined 6,000 euros ($6,550).

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

Welcoming the decision, Haenel 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.”

Obstacles remain

In June 2019, two gynecologists in Berlin, Bettina Gaber and Verena Weyer, were handed fines of 2,000 euros ($2,100) each for the same offense.

Anti-abortion militants, who organize themselves online, are behind most of the legal complaints made against doctors. 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.

Women activists ridiculing themselves with costumes protest against Paragraph 218, in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany, March 16, 1974. (AP Photo/Kurt Strumpf)

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.

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

The aim of this discussion is to “encourage the woman to continue her pregnancy,” even if in the end the choice is up to her.

After the consultation, patients must wait for three days — a “reflection period” — before making a decision.

Around 100,000 abortions are carried out in Germany annually, although the number has dropped in recent years.

The subject is still taboo in Germany, according to a number of gynecologists, and can feel like an obstacle course for patients, particularly in traditionally Catholic Bavaria.

In large parts of the vast southern state, no hospitals offer the procedure. Many people opt 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.”

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