News Analysis

Germany’s Christian Democrats are about to liberalise the abortion laws

The German government has reached a compromise on liberalising the country’s abortion law. Health minister Jens Spahn of the Christian Democrats (CDU) will revise the controversial Article 219a which bans advertising of abortion services. The government will now publish a list of doctors offering abortion and expand training in the procedure. This follows a bitter row between the CDU and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners.

In recent years Germany’s abortion rate has declined significantly, with the annual number of abortions dropping from 135,000 in 2001 to under 100,000 in 2016. The rate is low by European standards, around half that in France, at least partly due to stricter laws including the advertising ban.

It is not difficult for a German woman to obtain an abortion in the first trimester – around 95 per cent of the annual number of abortions are reported as being for social rather than medical reasons. However, there remain significant legal restrictions. Abortion is not covered by health insurance. Late-term abortions are very strictly regulated. And a woman seeking an abortion in the first trimester is required to attend counselling which is supposed to encourage her to carry the pregnancy to term – though in practice this is often a formality.

What happens in practice is that some traditionally Catholic regions such as Bavaria take the law more seriously than others, which means that access to abortion in those regions is more patchy than advocates of liberalisation would like.

This controversy has been going on for a year, since gynaecologist Kristina Hänel was fined €6,000 for breaching the advertising ban. The CDU has been fighting a rearguard action, with SPD leader Andrea Nahles advocating the complete scrapping of Article 219a. Most of the opposition parties – the Greens, the pro-business FDP and the post-communist Die Linke – have also spoken out for complete abolition.

With a parliamentary majority against it, the CDU’s only option has been to leverage its position in the ruling coalition to force a compromise.