Germany scraps Nazi-era law that barred doctors’ abortion ads

Germany has abolished a Nazi-era law that criminalises doctors who provide information about abortion procedures.

The governing social democrat, liberal and green parties, as well as the leftwing Die Linke, provided sufficient votes on Friday to scrap paragraph 219a of the German criminal code, which meant any doctor who publicly “offers, announces [or] advertises” abortion services could face penalties of up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine.

The parliamentary blocs of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and far-right Alternative für Deutschland voted against lifting the restrictions.

Lisa Paus, the minister for family affairs, described the result as a triumph that would strengthen women’s right to self-determination in Germany. “Today is a good day for doctors in Germany – and especially for the women in our country,” said the Green party politician.

The justice minister, Marco Buschmann, of the liberal Free Democratic party, said the vote had ended an absurd state where “any troll or conspiracy theorist” was able to spread lies about abortions over the internet, while medically qualified doctors were banned from providing information.

The legal change was criticised by the conservative CDU, whose legal affairs spokesperson, Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker, said it would enable “proactive advertising online” that would imply that abortion was an “everyday medical treatment”.

Abortion in Germany remains technically illegal, though women and doctors do not face penalties if the pregnancy poses a health risk, in the case of rape, or if the abortion is carried out within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and after mandatory counselling.

Paragraph 219a, which dates back to May 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler assumed full powers of Nazi Germany, was a further barrier. Rarely used for decades, it was discovered by anti-abortion activists in the second decade of the 21st century as a means to systematically target doctors who offer abortion services.

The paragraph of the criminal code meant doctors could be fined even if their websites stated what procedures they used when performing abortions. Over the last two decades Germany has seen a significant decline in the number of clinics performing abortions, from 2,050 in 2003 to 1,109 in 2020.

The vote in the Bundestag was watched over from the visitors gallery by Kristina Hänel, a gynaecologist who in 2017 was fined €6,000 (£5,140) for breaking the law by publishing information about abortion services on her website.

“I am relieved and delighted that paragraph 219a will likely be abolished”, Hänel told the public broadcaster ZDF on the eve of the vote. “I believe it means we have reached the goal of giving women the right to information about ending a pregnancy.”

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