Paragraph 218 makes abortion practically illegal – Scrap it!

Kate Cahoon from the Bündnis für sexuelle Selbstbestimmung on the chances of law reform, international solidarity and why abortion is still illegal in Germany


Hi Kate. Thanks for giving us your time. Could you start by introducing yourself, and saying a little about the Bündnis für Sexuelle Selbstbestimmung, where you are active?

I’ve been living in Germany for 12 years. At some point, I realised that abortion is technically still a crime in this country. I couldn’t believe it and have been involved in the pro-choice coalition Bündnis für sexuelle Selbstbestimmung ever since. We’re a broad coalition of activists and representatives from political parties, NGOs, health providers, unions and other civil society groups.

In addition to the protests against the anti-choice “Marsch des Lebens” every September and regular campaigns for abortion rights, we also helped to build a nationwide network of pro-choice groups and initiated protests around Safe Abortion Day (28 September) in Germany.

What is paragraph 219? Maybe you can start by explaining the background to this law. Why was it introduced and how has it been used?

Paragraph 219a of Germany’s criminal code prohibits doctors from advertising abortion services or providing information about abortions on their websites. The law was introduced by the Nazis in 1933 and lay dormant for decades, until anti-choicers started to use it to initiate lawsuits against practitioners, like the well-known case against doctor Kristina Hänel. She was fined for providing information on her website in 2017 but refused to accept the verdict, promising to take the matter to Germany’s constitutional court. Hänel’s response was accompanied by nationwide protests and media reports, helping to re-ignite the movement for abortion rights in Germany. 

Germany, and particularly Berlin, has a reputation for having liberal laws on sexual freedom, and yet abortion is still illegal here. Can you explain?

Religion has a much stronger influence on German politics and the wider society than many people realise. Parts of the country are still deeply conservative; Christian fundamentalists and right-wing actively oppose the existing regulations on abortion and push for even more restrictive laws. That’s despite the fact that the vast majority of people in Germany is evidently in favour of abortion.

Many people, especially young people, are shocked when they find out about the current legislation or encounter the deliberate hurdles placed in the path of those in need of abortion services, like mandatory counselling and the three day waiting period before an abortion can be performed.

What do the various political parties in Germany say about abortion rights?

The CDU/CSU have staunchly opposed any attempt to reform Germany’s abortion laws in the past decades. They are explicitly anti-choice and consider the current legislation to be an ideal “compromise” between the interests of those facing an unwanted pregnancy and “unborn life”. Leading AfD politicians like Beatrix von Storch are vocal on abortion and meet openly with the leaders of Germany’s anti-choice movement. Their party platform often combines racist and anti-choice messaging, demanding a “Wilkommenskultur für Ungeborene”, meaning unborn (white German) babies should be welcomed into the country instead of refugees. 

The Left party (die LINKE) is the only political party to have consistently demand the full legalisation of abortion from the outset. The Greens and the Social Democrats are broadly pro-choice and have become more explicit about the need to remove abortion from the criminal code in the lead up the recent election. Despite claiming to be liberal, the FDP is not in favour of fully legalising abortion and frequently refers to the Constitutional Court rulings of 1975 and 1993 which assert a right to life for every individual embryo. 

How strong is the Anti-Choice movement in Germany? Who goes to the “Marsch für das Leben” (March for Life)?

The anti-choice movement in Germany is well funded and closely connected to religious fundamentalist groups and organisations from other European countries and other parts of the world, in particular the US. Prominent members of the AfD have been known to march in the front row of the March for Life in Berlin and CDU parliamentarians often send official greetings to participants.

A few years ago, the march was attracting large numbers of participants, around 7,000-8,000 people who  mainly came in on buses from other parts of the country and neighbouring Poland. The organisers tried to attract young people by organsing a weekend of “pro-life” activities in the capital city. It’s a strange mix of church goers enjoying a family outing and right-wing fanatics with signs referring to the “Babycaust”.

Thankfully – and perhaps as a result of the loud and disruptive protests organised by our coalition and other radical left groups – the number of participants has decreased significantly in recent years. 

This year sees the 150th anniversary of paragraph 218. What is this paragraph, and what are its effects?

Abortions are regulated by paragraph 218 of the criminal code, in the chapter on “Crimes against Life” next to murder and manslaughter. These laws were introduced back in 1871, and while they didn’t apply in East Germany, where abortion on demand was legal from 1972 onwards, they were reinstated for the Federal German Republic in the early 1990s. 

Aside from criminalising abortion per se, the law stipulates that pregnant women are required to seek counselling services by state accredited authorities in order for them to be able to terminate a pregnancy. An abortion can be performed if certain conditions are met, however, the act remains unlawful. The wording of the law is clearly paternalistic and intended to discourage those with an unwanted pregnancy from seeking an abortion. It contributes to social stigma around abortion and creates considerable barriers to abortion access. 

Some counselling services run by church institutions will provide counselling without issuing the certificate needed, intentionally misleading clients. The number of doctors and public hospitals willing to perform abortions in this uncertain setting has plummeted in recent years, particularly in regional areas. Medical students do not routinely learn how to perform an abortion as part of their studies, which has led to young doctors organising workshops to practice on papayas. The costs of an abortion are also not covered by statutory health insurance, although individuals with a low income can wade through endless paperwork to get costs reimbursed by federal states. 

The new German government has promised to abolish paragraph 219. That’s great news, isn’t it?

In 2018 it also looked like paragraph 219a was about to be scrapped and it didn’t happen, because the FDP side-stepped and the SPD ultimately changed their minds, not wanting to risk their chances of becoming coalition partners with the CDU. Now the Greens, SPD and FDP have promised to do it, but it’s still yet to happen. 

Why do you think that the incoming government has promised to abolish paragraph 219 at this time?

Basically it’s long overdue; the SPD and Greens in particular would have lost credibility if they didn’t make it happen. I think the coalition partners are keen to appear progressive and were happy to find something they could agree upon so easily. The real issue that needs to be tackled is paragraph 218.

Some people have suggested that the upcoming reforms might weaken our case for legal abortion. I don’t agree. The fact that paragraph 218 and the need for abortion to be covered by statutory health insurance is mentioned in the coalition paper at all is a direct result of our protests in the last few years and our efforts to set the agenda in the lead up to the election. No government is ever going to hand our rights to us on a plate – we will have to keep fighting for it and we’re one huge step closer than we were before. 

Abortion rights aren’t just an issue in Germany. In recent years, abortion has been legalised in Ireland and Argentina. What can the movement here learn from these successes? 

Abortion rights are contested in many parts of the world, and in countries like Poland and Argentina hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent years to demand safe and legal abortion. We don’t have these kinds of mass mobilizations in Germany at this point in history, perhaps because the situation here is perceived as being less urgent, but there’s still a lot we can learn from other struggles. 

In Berlin, we have particularly strong links with the movement in Poland across the border. Many Polish women live in Germany or come over here to get abortions. Although they are facing massive repression, they are also showing great resilience. 

The examples of Ireland and Argentina give us hope – if the fight for legal abortion can be won after such a long battle, we are bound to succeed in the end as well.

Finally, how can someone who wants to fight for Choice get more involved in Berlin?

Join die LINKE and make sure our party stays at the forefront of the struggle for legal abortion! But aside from that, follow the Bündnis für sexuelle Selbstbestimmung on social media and support our protests. International activists and groups are also encouraged to get in touch and potentially help plan activities for International Safe Abortion Day on September 28.