Abortion in Germany: back to the Netherlands?


By Marita Mueller

The fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989 and the reunification of Germany a year later had many consequences for East German women. At reunification East German laws were simply replaced by West German ones, without any discussion. This resulted in the loss of many social and political achievements for East German women.

The only law which was not just erased was that concerning abortion. Two different laws remained. For nearly four years now, the abortion debate has been fierce.

Since March 1973, East German women had enjoyed the legal right to terminate their pregnancy free of charge in the first 12 weeks. In West Germany abortion became only partially legal in 1977 after a six-year battle by the women's movement. Paragraph 218 of the Penal Code allowed women to have an abortion only in specific circumstances: when the mother's life was threatened, for "eugenic" reasons and for reasons such as severe social and psychological problems or pregnancy resulting from rape.

In reality, this meant that a woman had to gain permission from two different doctors and sometimes also a psychologist. Thus the amount of trauma that a woman had to suffer very much depended on the attitude of the particular doctors involved.

Many women in the early '80s found it easier to go on organised abortion trips to the Netherlands than to endure this often demeaning procedure. Even then, although the "crime" took place in the Netherlands, a woman could still be prosecuted in Germany.

The most spectacular use of the Penal Code against women took place in Memmingen, in the south of Germany, as recently as 1989. Many women and their gynaecologist, Dr Theissen, were charged with "illegal" abortions. The court scrutinised the reasons given by women to justify their abortions and decided that they were not good enough. They were penalised with heavy fines. Dr Theissen was imprisoned for two and a half years and banned from practising his profession for three years.

Not only is it highly questionable that a judge is seen as more competent than a doctor or a woman herself in judging the circumstances of a woman's life, it is outrageous that judges are able to get access to this confidential information in the first place.

With reunification many women saw a chance to achieve major changes to this oppressive law. While women pushed for the total abolition of paragraph 218, many would have been satisfied with the East German law of abortion on demand.

For nearly four years women in the east lived under the old East German law, whereas women in the west lived under West German law. In May the country's highest court finally decided on a unified law.

Now, except for special circumstances, abortion is still against the law, but women supposedly won't be prosecuted. Instead, compulsory counselling has been introduced. According to the law, the counsellor's aim must be to encourage a woman to keep her child rather than to have an abortion.

Moreover, public health insurance has to pay for the operation only if the abortion is a result of rape, if there is danger to the life or the health of the mother or if it is known that the child will be severely disabled. For all other reasons, health insurance will cover only the cost of counselling.

In Germany today, an abortion costs between Dm400 and Dm1200 (A$375-A$1125). How can a woman who desires an abortion on socio-economic grounds afford an abortion? The trips to Holland might just become cheaper again and definitely much less hassle.

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