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German commission recommends officially legalizing abortion

April 15, 2024

A commission appointed by the German government has recommended officially legalizing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

"My body belongs to me" - a protester in Munich, 2022
'My body belongs to me' - a protester in Munich, 2022Image: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA/picture alliance

A government-appointed commission has recommended that abortion should be officially legalized within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, potentially paving the way for what would be an historic step in Germany.

Terminating a pregnancy officially remains a criminal offense in Germany, as stipulated in paragraph 218 of the criminal code, though abortion is exempt from punishment if carried out within the first three months of pregnancy and the woman has received counseling. In addition, abortion is expressly permitted in cases of rape or if the woman's life or physical or mental health is at risk.

But that legal framework is around 30 years old and has long been criticized. Germany's governing coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP) is revisiting the issue — and wants to liberalize abortion law. On Monday, a government-appointed commission presented its recommendations, and called for the old constitutional prohibition on abortion to be abolished.

SPD politician Katja Mast said that what is new about this recommendation is that early abortions would no longer be a criminal offense: "I think that regulations on abortion do not belong in the criminal code because, in my view, it stigmatizes women," she said.

German protesters praying outside an abortion counselling center in 2023
German protesters praying outside an abortion counselling center in 2023Image: Helen Whittle/DW

The Catholic Church has concerns

Religious groups and associations have had very different reactions. Catholic Archbishop of Berlin Heiner Koch told the Catholic News Agency that we would prefer to stick with the existing regulation because it "values both the mother's needs and concerns and the protection of the unborn child." The Central Committee of German Catholics is critical of the decision because it gives the embryo less protection in the early stages of pregnancy.

The association Pro Familia, on the other hand, welcomed the new recommendations, and advocates for the complete decriminalization of abortion and the abolition of compulsory counseling.

Political opposition came, as expected, from the conservatives. Friedrich Merz, leader of the largest opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), warned that with such a reform the government would be "introducing a major social conflict into the country." In a newspaper interview, Dorothee Bär of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), expressed her "astonishment that the protection of the life of the unborn child is apparently no longer to play a role."

The right-wing populist party the Alternative for Germany (AfD) also opposes the measure, while the socialist Left Party is calling on the government to turn the recommendations into a draft law and present it soon.

If the coalition were to do so, the CDU/CSU and the AfD would presumably join forces in the Bundestag to oppose it — a dilemma for the CDU/CSU, as it has previously refused to cooperate with the AfD.

The CDU could face a similar dilemma should it — or the AfD, or both — challenge such a bill before the German Federal Constitutional Court. Back in the 1990s, a Bundestag resolution to liberalize abortion law failed once already before the Federal Constitutional Court. The compromise that emerged as a result became the current law that is now being questioned.

Kristina Hänel
The doctor Kristina Hänel was prosecuted for providing information on abortions, before paragraph 219a was eventually abolishedImage: Axel Heimken/dpa/picture alliance

'Advertising ban' on abortions already overturned

The government has already implemented, or is in the process of implementing, other measures related to abortion. Paragraph 219a, known as the ban on advertising abortion, has already been repealed — under that law, doctors who publicly provided information about abortions were liable to prosecution, and many were.

A ban on what is known as sidewalk harassment is currently making its way through the legislative process. This would make it a misdemeanor for anti-abortion activists to aggressively protest near counseling centers, hospitals, or doctors' offices that offer pregnancy counseling or carry out abortions.

Abortion in the USA, Ireland, and France

The current debate in US shows just how polarizing the issue remains. Since a Supreme Court ruling in 2022, every US state has been able to regulate its own abortion laws, and some have re-imposed severe restrictions on abortion. The Supreme Court in Arizona has now even spoken out in favor of reinstating a law from 1864 — when the Civil War was under way and women were not allowed to vote — which would make abortion almost completely illegal in Arizona.

On the presidential campaign trail, however, not even Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has committed to supporting a national ban on abortion. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll in March, 57% of US citizens believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases.

A referendum held in 2018 in Ireland, another country with a strong Catholic tradition, resulted in a two-thirds majority in favor of legalizing abortion. At the time, many did not expect such a clear result in the previously socially conservative country. 

France, meanwhile, enshrined abortion rights in the constitution earlier this year, as a guaranteed "freedom to terminate a pregnancy." The former archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, reacted with indignation on the social media platform X: "The law urges the conscience to kill." France had reached a low point, he wrote. "It has become a totalitarian state." If the German government follows the commission's recommendations, Germany is also likely to face a heated debate on the subject.

This article originally appeared in German.

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