According to section 218 of Germany’s criminal code, abortion is a crime. It’s in the part pertaining to “offences against life”, alongside murder and negligent manslaughter, although a sub-section spells out that it is decriminalized in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, that is, if the woman has a certificate from an authorized counselling service and waits three days before having the procedure carried out.
In case you were thinking that the counselling was intended to provide support to the pregnant woman, you were wrong. The law states that the “the counselling serves to protect unborn life. It should be guided by efforts to encourage the woman to continue the pregnancy and to open her to the prospects of a life with the child”. Well, that sounds unbiased, doesn’t it? Feminists and other people who believe that women are capable of deciding whether they are prepared to push something the size of small watermelon out of their vagina without the interference of the state have been arguing for this law to be abolished since the 1970s.
In this particular case, Dr Kristina Hänel refused to take the information down from her website and settle before court, which would have seen her walk away with a modest fine and a slap on the wrist. Generally, when faced with these kinds of charges, doctors plead ignorance or say they won’t do it again, but this time around Hänel decided that her patients have a right to information. Information, for example, about what to expect when visiting the clinic to have a pregnancy terminated, from what the procedure involves to what they should bring with them (clean underwear, cosy slippers, etc). The judge, however, agreed with prosecutors who claimed the information constituted an advertisement. The judge explained that the law was there to ensure that abortion would not become “normalized”. Just as an aside – around 70,000 women die annually due to unsafe abortions in countries where access to abortion is restricted. Is that the kind of “normal” we are working towards?
Now in case you’re wondering how the under-resourced German law enforcement authorities manage to find time to trawl the net looking for potential suspects, aka doctors, the short answer is – they don’t. The vast majority of cases result from charges being pressed by radical “pro-lifers”, Christian fundamentalists with too much time (and money) on their hands. Their most assiduous supporter is Klaus Günter Annen, who runs a website with the charming title “Babycaust.de” featuring the names of most abortion service providers in Germany. Funnily enough, it’s not a bad place to get information if you are looking for a comprehensive record of other pro-choice allies.
Anyway, the timing of this sudden burst of opposition to section 219a seems surprising, particularly given that politicians have had a while to do something about the regulation of abortion. Section 219a was introduced in 1933 by – you might have guessed already – the Nazi party, as part of sweeping reforms to criminalize Jewish doctors, communists and homosexuals. Until last year, when the media started reporting on the Hänel case and a lot of people came to realize how restrictive Germany’s abortion laws actually are, a liberalization seemed unlikely. If the vote goes ahead later this month and a small miracle sees a majority in favour of abolishing section 219a, I would pay good money to have a live camera on the floor of parliament filming Beatrix von Storch’s face.
However, if the law doesn’t get overturned this time around, it’s safe to assume that it won’t be easy to put a lid back on the debate around reproductive rights in Germany and in other European countries. With the upcoming referendum on repealing the 8th amendment in Ireland, and the worsening situation for women in neighbouring country Poland, there are plenty of reasons to join the pro-choice bloc at the Frauen*kampftagdemonstration on International Women’s Day (March 8, 2018) and the day of action organized by the Bündnis für sexuelle Selbstbestimmung in September in protest against the annual “March for Life” in Berlin.