Berlin (AFP) – After a German court fined her 6,000 euros ($7,400) for spelling out on her practice’s website that she performs abortions, gynaecologist Kristina Haenel vowed that “it can’t go on like this”.
Likewise, her Kassel-based colleague Nora Szasz, who is facing a similar threat under a Nazi-era law, said she would not give in.
“We are not afraid,” Haenel told AFP, vowing she is ready to take the battle to Germany’s highest court against a 1933 law that bans medical practitioners from advertising that they carry out terminations of pregnancies.
Germany, despite being a leading voice for women’s rights in the 1970s, imposes tight restrictions on abortion.
The procedure is permitted but only under strictly regulated circumstances. It is left out of universities’ course books for student doctors and kept unavailable in swathes of the country.
Haenel and Szasz have fallen foul of the law because they stated on the website of their medical practice that they perform abortions.
“That’s just a mention among 12 other types of surgical procedures that I carry out as a gynaecologist,” said Szasz, who was recently charged for flouting article 219a of the penal code.
With the cases of Haenel and Szasz in the media spotlight, the issue has sparked a political debate, with some among the opposition calling for article 219a to be scrapped and for women to be given access to the critical information.
Noting that article 219a dated back to May 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler assumed full powers of Nazi Germany, Verena Osgyan, a local MP for the Greens in the Bavarian regional parliament, told AFP that it was an “unbelievable anachronism”.
More than 80 years on, abortion remains a taboo, said Berlin gynaecologist Christiane Tennhardt.
“In Germany, legislation remains very complex and contradictory,” said Jutta Pliefke, of Pro Familia, which counsels women on pregnancies and sexuality and receives public funding.
– Doctors not taught abortions –
Germany records an average of 100,000 abortions for 790,000 births, while in France, there are 210,000-220,000 terminations for 800,000 births.
A woman who wants to abort within the first trimester is required to attend a consultation at a registered centre.
The aim of the interview is to “incite the woman to continue the pregnancy,” according to the rules, even if in the end, she has the final say.
A three-day waiting period is then imposed for the woman to reconsider her options.
Excluding special circumstances such as a pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother, or one arising from rape, abortion — which can cost hundreds of euros — is not a procedure that is reimbursable by health insurance.
In some regions, including in the predominantly Catholic state of Bavaria, it may be necessary to travel 100 kilometres (about 60 miles) to find a doctor who performs the procedure.
In parts of the rich southern region, no public hospital offers such terminations.
“Many of the doctors who do it are long past their retirement age,” said Osgyan.
Some patients choose to turn to Austria.
And the situation looks far from improving, as doctors are not taught the procedure in universities.
Because of the penal code restriction, no research grant is provided and neither are medical congresses held on the subject, said Pro Familia.
– ‘Constant death threats’ –
Blocking any reform of the current legislation, Health Minister Jens Spahn has spoken out for the protection of “human life at birth”.
“When it comes to the life of animals, those who now want to promote abortions are uncompromising,” charged the openly gay minister, taking aim at liberals calling for greater openness about terminations.
Spahn, 37, a critic of Merkel within her Christian Democrats, has not been known to shy away from controversy.
In 2012, he drew fire for opposing a bid to turn the contraceptive pill from a prescription medicine to an over-the-counter drug, as he remarked that “pills are not Smarties”.
For the Greens, Spahn “propagates an image of women that dates to the 1950s”.
But the “pro-life” lobby backs Spahn, as they charge that blood tests to detect Down’s syndrome could contribute to a rise in the number of abortions.
Anti-abortion activist Klaus Guenter Annen, who filed the legal claim against Szasz, has compared abortion to the Nazi-run Auschwitz death camp.
Recounting the fierce opposition she faces over the procedure, Haenel said she “constantly receives death threats”.
For fear of flouting the law, doctors who perform the procedure prefer to keep their names off any lists provided by counsellors to women seeking the information.
“That’s the real scandal that no one talks about,” said Haenel, noting that the irony is that the only websites carrying lists of doctors who carry out terminations are anti-abortion sites.
Pro Familia’s Pliefke noted that feminists have largely forgotten the battle for the right to choose.
“It is urgent to reappropriate the theme” to fight “reactionary forces that are particularly powerful,” she added.