The German parliament is split over a Nazi-era abortion law that punishes doctors

German women demand the right to abortion information.
German women demand the right to abortion information.
Image: EPA-EFE/Hayoung Jeon
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One of the first orders of business for the freshly-formed government in Berlin next week was meant to be a vote on striking a law introduced by the Nazis in the 1930s, making it illegal for doctors to publicly say that they offer abortion services or abortion advice.

In a country as progressive as Germany, it may surprise some people to know that under section 219a of the criminal code, a medical professional is forbidden to publicly “offer, announce, or advertise” abortion services. Breaking the law is punishable with a fine or up to two years in prison.

It’s a stark contrast to counties like the UK and US, where clinics are freely able to advertise abortion services and post information on what to expect and how to recover, for example.

Paragraph 219a was hotly debated in the lower house of parliament on Feb. 22. On one side, the Social Democrats, Free Democrats, Greens, and the Left argued that the law was outdated. On the other side, chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the right-wing Alternative for Germany were against repealing it.

Then, on Tuesday (Mar. 13), the Social Democrats—partners in the new coalition—suddenly did an about-face, announcing they didn’t want to put their proposal to strike the law to a vote, as they’d originally promised, but would seek a common solution with their conservative partners. They were slammed for giving in to the CDU before the new government even got off the ground. 

Feminist groups have been decrying the law for years, but it started getting major media attention last year, when a doctor was hit with a €6,000 ($7,400) fine for putting abortion information on her clinic’s website. Dr. Kristina Hänel resolved to fight the fine and refused to take the information down. Instead, the 61-year-old, who’s been performing abortions for 30 years, gathered a petition with more than 150,000 signatures and took it to the Bundestag, demanding they get rid of Paragraph 219a. 

Hänel told Die Zeit she was “shocked” when she got the summons, but “immediately there was support from all sides.” “When I went public with the petition on, I realized: right now I have a chance to change something,” she said. “Every woman should have the right to inform herself freely and anonymously.”

Ulle Schauws, an MP for Alliance 90 / The Greens, says it should be the government’s duty to support doctors who carry out abortions. “The mood has actually changed, many doctors are being treated with hostility, and are virtually under general suspicion,” Schauws told Das Parlament magazine.

Abortion is still a crime in Germany and an “offence against life” under section 218 of the criminal code. However, a woman won’t be prosecuted if she has the abortion in the first 12 weeks of her pregnancy, but she’s legally obliged to have a counseling session with a doctor and then have three days “thinking time” before she goes ahead with the procedure. She still has to pay for the abortion herself though, as medical insurance will normally only cover her if the pregnancy is deemed risky.

While it may seem shocking that in Germany, in 2018, a woman’s decision to have an abortion could see her classed a criminal, it’s unlikely that this law will be changed in the near future. Now, with the Social Democrats’ decision to not put Paragraph 219a to a vote, it’s also not certain whether the clause criminalizing doctors will be scrapped.