Abortion Rights in Unified Germany

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

Mary Janzen

For nearly twenty years the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) provided free abortion on demand until fetal viability (set at twenty-two weeks). In the Federal Republic (West Germany), clause 218 of the penal code criminalizes abortion unless a woman can prove that bringing the pregnancy to term would cause her extreme “distress.” Although West German women organized to change the law in the 1970s, they were never able to reverse the ban.

For the first two years of unification, the former East German states were allowed to keep their liberal abortion laws, while the German Parliament struggled over new regulations, finally adopting a law legalizing abortions within the first three months of pregnancy.

But on May 28, 1993 the Supreme Court overturned the law because it violates the constitutional provision requiring the state “to protect human life.” The Court also ruled that a woman seeking an abortion must receive counseling which not merely provides her with a range of available options, but attempts to dissuade her outright. “The woman must be aware that the unborn child has its own right to life,” the court wrote in its 183-page opinion. In practice, women who can afford to pay for abortions will be able to obtain them but health insurance plans will not cover the cost and state-supported hospitals will not perform abortions. (“Abortion Limited by German Court,” Stephen Kinzer, N.Y. Times, 5/29/93)

In her role as PDS/Left List speaker for women’s issues in the German Parliament, Petra Blaess pointed out that the Supreme Court ruling, particularly “for women in the new federal lands [of East Germany], after twenty years of lenient [abortion] regulation, it signifies a serious attack on the right of self determination.” Germany now has one of the tightest limitations on abortion in Europe.

But for women from the former East Germany restrictions on abortion are just one setback among many. W omen have borne the brunt of the transition to capitalist production. Their 65% rate of unemployment — just as social services and state-provided daycare are being eliminated — makes it difficult to mobilize a fight for abortion rights.

ATC 50, May-June 1994