In Politics: Breaking down the proposed change to paragraph 219a of Germany’s abortion law

On Monday, the German government will hold a hearing regarding a proposed bill to revise paragraph 219a, the country's law on advertising abortion. We break down some of the essential questions around this discussion.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

 

The German government will hold a hearing on Monday regarding a proposed bill to revise paragraph 219a, the country’s law on advertising abortion. This week in politics, we break down some of the essential questions around this discussion.

We hear from Der Tagesspiegel political reporter Andrea Dernbach, a doctor in Berlin fined for “advertising” abortion under the current law, Health Minister Jens Spahn and Green party leader Annalena Baerbock.

What is Germany’s law on abortion?

The country’s law on abortion falls under section 218 of Germany’s criminal law, making the procedure technically illegal – though not punishable when it meets a number of exceptions. For example, a pregnancy can be terminated within the first 12 weeks if a woman has obtained counseling three days before the operation. Abortions can also be performed after the first trimester if the woman’s mental or physical health is threatened.

Dernbach tells us that because abortion is criminalized, performing the procedure can be seen as a risk and therefore fewer doctors in recent years have decided to offer abortions. “There’s really a problem of numbers, of doctors performing something which many consider a normal medical service,” Dernbach said.

What is paragraph 219a and why is it being changed?

Paragraph 219a under current law prohibits offering, announcing or advertising abortion. “The headline of the law is ‘advertisement,'” said Dernbach. “In reality, it threatens simple information too.”

The debate over how an advertisement is defined was newly ignited after Dr. Kristina Hänel in Gießen was ordered to pay 6,000 euros in 2017. She was found in violation of the law for writing she offered abortions on her clinic’s website.

Screenshot from the website of Dr. Bettina Gaber’s gynecological practice. The Berlin-based doctor has been issued a fine for violating 219a of Germany’s law concerning the “advertisement” of abortions.

Since then, other doctors are facing charges, including Dr. Natascha Nicklaus and Dr. Nora Szász in Kassel, and Dr. Bettina Gaber in Berlin. Currently on the website of Dr. Gaber’s Berlin practice, it states she offers “a medical, anesthesia-free abortion.”

The punishment for advertising an abortion is a fine or imprisonment for up to two years. KCRW Berlin contributor Ella Joyner spoke with Dr. Gaber on Jan. 22, ahead of the announcement of the proposed bill. Ella asked if Dr. Gaber was afraid of the potential consequences for having this language on her website and if she had considered taking it down.

Dr. Gaber said initially she was fearful that she could lose her medical license, but after it was clarified that would not happen, she wanted to follow the example set and “courage” shown by Dr. Hänel, Dr. Szász, and Dr. Nicklaus.

“The prosecuting attorney offered that if I took the sentence down, I wouldn’t have to pay the fine,” Dr. Gaber said. “But still – we said no, we won’t do that. We have to fight this thing together now.”

What does the revision to paragraph 219a do?

The drafted bill put forth by the Grand Coalition comprising the Social Democrats (SPD), the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and the Christian Social Union (CSU) would allow for doctors to state that they perform abortions on their website. However, no other details would be permitted, including price or method. Instead, doctors would refer to a centralized list with more information, maintained by the German Medical Association.

Health Minister and CDU politician Jens Spahn said in a statement provided to KCRW Berlin: “With this compromise, the Grand Coalition finds a fair balance. Women seeking help in conflict situations need to know which doctor they can turn to. Advertising for abortions will not be made in the future. Abortion is not a medical procedure like any other.”

Today on Twitter following a reading of the bill, Spahn wrote, “This is a good compromise. We are helping women who are in difficult positions find expert advice. And we get social peace on this highly controversial, and too often irreconcilable, issue. #219a.”

Christian Democrats have previously said “the protection of life, unborn and born” is of paramount importance to the party. Other CDU/CSU politicians and anti-abortion groups have argued that decriminalizing the advertising of abortion could lead to “normalization.”

Meanwhile, this bill faces opposition from abortion rights activists and within the German government, most vehemently from the Green and the Left parties.

Annalena Baerbock, party leader of the Green, speaks at a demonstration at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz on Jan. 26, calling for the deletion of paragraph 219a, the law banning the “advertisement” of abortions. Photo by Sylvia Cunningham.

On Jan. 26, ahead of the drafted compromise, the Alliance for Sexual Self-Determination organized a demonstration across 30 cities across Germany, calling for an end to paragraph 219a. Green party leader Annalena Baerbock delivered a speech in Berlin to a crowd of several hundred, calling it “absurd” that they had to fight against “the rollback of women’s rights” in the year 2019.

In an interview with KCRW Berlin following her speech, Baerbock said not allowing women to receive information on abortion from their doctors is “ridiculous” and that paragraph 219a should be “deleted,” no compromise.

Will this bill pass?

Though this proposal faces opposition from the Greens, the Left party, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Dernbach said she has no doubts it will pass.

“The numbers in parliament are clear and the compromise will pass certainly, but this is not the end of the story,” Dernbach said.

She said pressure from women’s and abortion-rights activist groups will mean even after this particular bill has been settled, the end of this debate is far from over.

By the way – If you love our content, please consider donating to KCRW Berlin. We are a listener-funded public radio station, driven by supporters like you. Your donation supports our programming and events, feeding a flourishing English language community with local news, information and ideas.