Liberal Abortion Law Overturned by German Court


In a highly controversial ruling that ignited instant rage among women’s rights advocates and many of the country’s leading female politicians, Germany’s Constitutional Court on Friday overturned a year-old liberal abortion law and replaced it with a set of far tougher restrictions.

By a 6-2 majority, the court invalidated legislation adopted in June, 1992, that legalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy if the expectant mother agreed to first consult an approved family support organization.

The decision effectively renews public debate on the issue because restrictions laid out in the ruling become effective June 16 and will last until Parliament passes a new law or decides to accept the court’s interim revisions as permanent.


The law was a post-unification compromise between the tough restrictions that had previously existed in West Germany and a policy in the former Communist East Germany of abortion on demand during the first three months of pregnancy.

Friday’s ruling makes Germany the second European country in less than three months to tighten controls on abortion, reversing a trend toward liberalization that had characterized the past two decades. Poland’s Parliament banned abortion in March.

Reading from a 200-page decision, Chief Justice Ernst-Gottfried Mahrenholz declared abortion in most cases to be technically illegal--but not punishable. That move effectively allows the operation to be performed in Germany, but not in state-run hospitals and not under coverage by the country’s all-embracing national health care system.

Moreover, the court altered the purpose of obligatory pre-abortion consultations from that of providing unbiased professional help to expectant mothers to that of active dissuasion.

Reaction to the judgment was swift and sharp.

Small street protests were held in several cities, while leading female politicians denounced the ruling as both anti-women and a drastic social step backward.

“A return to the Middle Ages,” declared Regine Hildebrandt, minister for social affairs in the large eastern state of Brandenburg. “It’s catastrophe.”


Veteran Social Democratic member of Parliament Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul deplored the decision to remove abortion from national health coverage.

“What this really means is, who has money can afford an abortion, who doesn’t must go to a quack,” she said. “I really thought these times were long behind us.”

Religious groups and representatives from the political right, however, applauded the ruling.

The parliamentary floor leader for Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democrats, Juergen Ruettgers, called it “a good day for life,” while a statement issued by the German Council of Roman Catholic Bishops declared, “The true winner is the individual.”

Kohl himself, who has largely remained out of the abortion debate, issued a written statement asking the country to respect the court’s ruling and specifically praising the judgment’s reference to the need to protect the life of an unborn child.

The 1992 law was challenged in court by a group of Christian Democratic members of Parliament, along with the state of Bavaria. They contended that it violated constitutional provisions declaring that all life must be protected.


Aside from reigniting the nation’s abortion debate, Friday’s decision is certain to further complicate the already difficult task of building a sense of nationhood between eastern and western Germans in the wake of unification.

For many eastern women, already the single biggest losers in the unification process, Friday’s decision is especially painful. While the 1992 compromise abortion law constituted a major step forward for western women, the legally required consultation was seen by easterners as an infringement on their rights.

Friday’s ruling ends their access to state-run medical facilities for the operation and their right to have it free of charge.

The need to pay for the operation is also likely to have a greater impact in the east, where wages and living standards are lower.

Real unemployment in the economically devastated east is now running at about 30%. The jobless rate among women is far higher.