the price of knowledge

Amidst the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the building of the next German government, another issue has been attracting attention over the last few weeks. It all centres on a doctor, a court case, and on Germany’s restrictive abortion laws.

First, a quick bit of background on those laws. The basic position according to Section 218 of the Criminal Code is that termination is illegal and punishable, but not deemed an offence if certain conditions are fulfilled: that the woman undergoes approved counselling, and the procedure is performed by a physician within twelve weeks of conception. The subsequent Section 219 setting out the counselling requirements specifies that the purpose of counselling is protection of ‘unborn life’ and should therefore encourage the woman to continue with the pregnancy. Section 219a goes on to state that ‘Whosoever publicly, in a meeting or through dissemination of written materials, for material gain (…) offers, announces or commends his own services for performing terminations of pregnancy or for supporting them, or the services of another (…) shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding two years or a fine’ (1) . And this is what’s caused the recent controversy.

On her website, Dr Kristina Hänel listed the various services offered at her practice, including terminations. Apart from the word itself there was no further information on the website (bearing in mind the legal restrictions), so anyone wishing to find out more, for example about the process of obtaining a termination and what the procedure involves, had to provide their contact details — in other words make an explicit request for the information. Nevertheless, ever-vigilant pro-life anti-choice campaigners still saw this as advertising and reported Hänel to the police. And so she landed in court, facing charges of violation of Section 219a, and the prospect of up to two years in jail.

According to the public prosecutor in the case, Section 219a is intended to prevent terminations becoming commercialised, or seen as ‘the norm’. However, Hänel pointed out that as Section 218 clearly sets out the circumstances in which a termination is permitted, it is essential that women be able to freely access information about the procedure and — given the right of patients to choose their doctor — who might perform it.  In November the court found Hänel guilty and ordered her to pay a fine of €6,000.

The case was closely followed in the press and on social media, and 137,000 people have signed a petition in support of Hänel (yes, I am one of them). While the verdict was no big surprise, it has reignited the debate on Germany’s abortion laws. Hänel herself is sure that, with the court case over, the political and social process is only just beginning (2). So now it’s up to politicians and legal experts to seize this momentum and finally give women the freedom to legally obtain information.

‘information isn’t synonymous with ‘advertising’

There’s no time to waste. First, the ban on even mentioning the availability of termination services is an obstacle to finding out about potential providers, and women often have to wait for the approved counselling organisation to give them a list of possible doctors. Furthermore, women on low incomes need to apply for reimbursement of the cost of the termination (which is not covered by state health insurance) before the procedure. And remember, the limit for legal terminations is just twelve weeks. The situation itself, let alone having to organise so much and so quickly is already stressful enough — not knowing where the procedure might be carried out only adds to that pressure. It does seem perverse that a law intending to prevent illegal (and potentially unsafe) terminations at the same time forbids doctors to publicise their offer of legal, regulated procedures. Because the last time I looked, ‘information’ isn’t synonymous with ‘advertising’.

Secondly, the law as it currently stands has already emboldened the anti-choice campaign. And the publicity surrounding this recent case will only make campaigners more determined to ramp up the pressure on politicians, on doctors and of course on women seeking information. An emergency draft bill tabled by Die Linke notes that the number of reports to the police relating to Section 219a has risen sharply, and that this creates an increasingly intimidating environment for both doctors and patients (3). Which is exactly what campaigners set out to do.

Third, let’s return to the question of Germany’s next government. Politicians from various political parties, from Die Linke, the SPD and Greens to the FDP — are calling for urgent change to Section 219. Die Linke’s draft bill, for example, calls for Section 219 to be lifted or at the very least amended to differentiate between advertising and information. Putting this issue on the political agenda now means that parties aren’t bound by the terms of a coalition agreement to support the conservative CDU (4).

Hänel hands in the petition to parliament on 12 December. This is a rare window of opportunity that needs progressive politicians across the board to work together and bring about change. Change that doesn’t needlessly criminalise doctors for providing women with information to make considered, safe and legal decisions about their bodies.

should be clear and accessible, not a puzzle


(1) Chapter 16, ‘Offences Against Life’, including Sections 218 and 219 in full here in English

(2) See Kristina Hänel’s response to the verdict on Facebook (German) here

(3) See the draft bill here, in German  

(4) ‘Worauf wartet ihr noch?’ in taz (German)

image credit: wokandapix @ pixabay


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