A Nazi-era law banning doctors from giving women information about abortions is to be scrapped by Germany’s new government in a decision welcomed by activists who have long argued that it has hampered women’s ability to make informed choices.
The justice minister Marco Buschmann said that he will ditch Paragraph 219a from the penal code after almost 90 years, meaning that doctors will no longer have to fear prosecution if they provide information about the procedure.
The law forbids “advertising for pregnancy termination” and in recent years has led to a concerted campaign by right-wing groups against doctors who post factual details relating to the procedure on their websites.
The most high profile case involved Kristina Hänel, a GP who lost an appeal against a €6000 penalty she received in 2017 for offering abortion advice to her patients. On Tuesday she welcomed the announcement saying she was “joyful and grateful” that the law had been scrapped, adding that it “hung like Damocles sword” over doctors who lived in fear of prosecution even by just discussing options with their patients.
Buschmann of the pro-business FDP, said it made no sense that information about abortion was available freely on the internet, “but that precisely those people who are qualified in this regard, are not allowed to provide the information”. He sought to appease anti-abortion groups who have argued that the abolition of Paragraph 219a will encourage more terminations. Doctors, he said, would be restricted to giving factual information.
“The situation for the affected woman is difficult enough,” Buschmann said. “We don’t want to make it even more difficult.”
The law change was included in the coalition contract between the Social Democrats, Greens and the FDPwhich states: “the option to terminate a pregnancy at no cost is part of a reliable health care system”.
Abortions are technically illegal in Germany, but they are allowed under certain circumstances and must be carried out within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The woman is also required to receive counselling and the doctor must check that this has been carried out. An abortion is not considered a punishable offence if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy might lead to severe physical or psychological impairment. Hospitals run or supported by the Catholic church do not offer abortions.
Buschmann said that a commission would be set up to consider other aspects of reproductive medicine which could be improved, including better support for couples who were having difficulties get pregnant.
Among the opponents of the law change is the opposition conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Its MP, Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker disputed the argument that women faced a barrier when it came to receiving proper information about termination procedures and who provides them. “We’re talking about the mother’s right to self-determination, as well as about the life of the unborn child,” she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Paragraph 219a was enacted in May 1933, at the start of the Nazi dictatorship, when it was introduced in order to “protect the German nation”. The regime equated abortion with treason. But the campaign to have it repealed did not start properly until after German reunification in 1990.