German abortion reform blocked

Issue 

By Catherine Brown

The German Constitutional High Court has blocked the Bundestag's liberalisation of abortion laws. An alliance of the Catholic Church, the staunchly conservative Bavarian government and 241 members of parliament, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl, won a preliminary injunction on August 4, the day before the new law was to take effect.

At the time of German unification, it was agreed the different laws on abortion in the east and west would continue, though the treaty says the law should be revised by the end of 1992. In the meantime, women from western Germany would not be prosecuted for having abortions in the east.

In the east, abortion on demand was legalised in 1972. It was free and very few illegal abortions occurred. However, there were some conditions involving "time limits".

The long campaign for liberalisation of west German abortion laws was given added impetus after unification, joined by east German women who did not want to lose previously won rights. West German women have long been harassed by the government when they've attempted to go elsewhere for an abortion.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation estimates that west German women have 10,000 abortions every year in other countries, most of them illegal. The European Parliament has condemned medical examinations forced on women suspected of travelling to the Netherlands for abortions. As recently as March 1991, the magazine Der Spiegel reported 10 cases of women forced to have gynaecological tests at the border.

On June 24, after a 14-hour debate, the Bundestag

voted to let women, after submitting to a medical counselling session, decide for themselves in the first 12 weeks whether to have an abortion. The bill was passed 357 to 284 after 32 Christian Democrats (mostly from east Germany) crossed the floor to support the reform.

Protestant church leaders in general supported the proposed change, as did medical associations. Doctors objected to the old law's reliance on their decision as to whether a woman was in sufficient distress to qualify for an abortion.

The Catholic bishop of Rottenburg called the reform a free-fall into "the barbarism of the Third Reich". Bavaria's Christian Social Union, Kohl's coalition partners, called the bill unconstitutional.

The constitution states that "everyone shall have the right to life and to the inviolability of his person". The constitutional court will have to decide by the end of 1992 whether to uphold the challenge.

Kohl's popularity, already on the wane, won't be enhanced by yet another unpopular government initiative.

Opinion polls consistently show a two-thirds majority support for liberalisation of abortion laws. Once upon a time, goes a popular story, a young Helmut returned home applauding himself on a powerful anti-abortion tirade in the state parliament of the Rhineland Palatinate. His mother, the story continues, warned him :"Son, better hold your tongue. You don't understand anything about it."

The moral of the story: listen to mother.

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