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Controversial Comments

DW staff (sp)
February 25, 2008

A German politician sparked widespread outrage and calls to resign for suggesting that mothers in eastern Germany are more prone to killing their babies because of liberal communist-era abortion laws.

Child in Germany
There are heightened concerns in Germany about the safety of childrenImage: dpa

Amid growing concerns about the safety of children following a spate of child murders and infanticides, many of them in eastern Germany, a politician controversially suggested over the weekend that liberal attitudes in the communist former East Germany were partly to blame.

Replying to a question about a study that showed babies in eastern Germany were three to four times more at risk of being killed than in the west, Wolfgang Boehmer, premier of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt told German news magazine Focus: "This can be explained by the careless attitude towards early life in the new [eastern] states."

Wolfgang Böhmer, premier of Saxony-Anhalt
Boehmer unleashed a storm of protestImage: AP

A member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party (CDU), Boehmer said East German laws had let women receive abortions until the 12th week of pregnancy.

"Women decided without even having to give an explanation," Boehmer, a gynecologist, said in the magazine's Monday, Feb. 25, edition. "That continues to have an effect today. It seems to me as if the killings of newborns -- although they have always happened -- are a means of family planning to some."

In West Germany, abortion up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy was only allowed in cases of a medical necessity or after sexual crime. In reunified Germany, women can have an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy provided they have received counseling.

Calls to resign

Boehmer's comments have triggered a storm of protest across Germany.

"I find it outrageous for the past in East Germany and the current crimes to be named in one breath," Wolfgang Tiefensee, the federal minister responsible for the rebuilding of the east, said on German public broadcaster ZDF.

Members of Germany's opposition Green party urged Boehmer to resign, saying he had slandered women in eastern Germany with his comments.

"Wolfgang Boehmer has slurred all eastern German women and equates abortion with the murder of children," Claudia Roth, head of the Green party, told daily Tageszeitung. "To be a woman and to have lived in Communist East Germany suffices for him as a reason for abuse and murder. It's not acceptable."

Bleak economic prospects to blame?

Members of Germany's Left Party, a group of ex-Communists and disgruntled former Social Democrats, said Boehmer's comments were "absurd."

A prefabricated housing complex in Frankfurt Oder, Germany
Prefabricated housing complexes are common in eastern GermanyImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

Others said it was not the legacy of East German abortion regulations but rather economic depression in eastern regions that led to frustration among young families. Despite massive cash injections from the richer western half of the country, eastern Germany is still struggling with unemployment levels nearly twice as high as in the west and a brain drain as younger people flock to the west to take up work.

"To protect children's well-being, we need secure jobs, family incomes which ensure against poverty and extensive child care," Marianne Linke of the Left Party told news agency Reuters.

Boehmer's remarks aren't the first time politicians have taken aim at former communist East Germany's social traditions to explain persistent problems in the regions.

Three years ago, another politician blamed the legacy of communist East Germany and a "forced proletarianization," saying it had broken down societal structures leading citizens in the east to turn a blind eye to violence and suffering.

Government steps in

Recent cases of mothers strangling or beating to death their babies have prompted both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Horst Koehler to weigh in the debate and call on Germans to be more attentive to the plight of child abuse. In one particularly gruesome case, one mother buried her babies in flower pots after killing them.

A child with a teddy bear
There are increased fears about the safety of childrenImage: dpa Zentralbild

Merkel's government has launched a raft of measures aimed at preventing families from falling into the desperate situations believed to be at least partially responsible for some of the crimes.

In December, it approved a package that allows authorities to take swifter action when abuse or neglect of a child is suspected. It also includes regular checkups for babies and toddlers and obliges doctors to report suspicious cases.

In addition a national database is to be created that will compile information from social welfare offices, family courts, health care providers, child protection services and the police.