Abortion in Germany – ‘where providing information is a crime’

It is high time that Germany scraps a 1930s law that forbids doctors from providing women with complete information on how to terminate a pregnancy, argues Kate Cahoon.

Abortion in Germany - 'where providing information is a crime'
Photo: DPA

Germany is seen as a pretty liberal country. Alcohol is sold in supermarkets and is practically cheaper than bottled water, kids can buy a large enough quantity of fireworks to blow up a small house, and gay marriage is legal (okay, only since last year, but Christopher Street Day in Berlin attracts such a crowd it’s almost a public holiday). But there are some things you can’t do – particularly if you’re a woman and say, pregnant, or a doctor who carries out pregnancy terminations.

According to section 218 of Germany’s criminal code, abortion is a crime. It’s in the part pertaining to “offences against life”, alongside murder and negligent manslaughter, although a sub-section spells out that it is decriminalized in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, that is, if the woman has a certificate from an authorized counselling service and waits three days before having the procedure carried out.

In case you were thinking that the counselling was intended to provide support to the pregnant woman, you were wrong. The law states that the “the counselling serves to protect unborn life. It should be guided by efforts to encourage the woman to continue the pregnancy and to open her to the prospects of a life with the child”. Well, that sounds unbiased, doesn’t it? Feminists and other people who believe that women are capable of deciding whether they are prepared to push something the size of small watermelon out of their vagina without the interference of the state have been arguing for this law to be abolished since the 1970s.

Yet, as outrageous as it might be, it is not this part of the law that has come under scrutiny recently, but a related sub-section. In November 2017, a doctor was charged and fined over €6,000 for having a PDF with information about abortion on her website. She was charged under section 219a of the German criminal code, which refers to the aforementioned section on pregnancy termination, and specifies that doctors and other healthcare providers cannot provide certain kinds of information about their services.

In this particular case, Dr Kristina Hänel refused to take the information down from her website and settle before court, which would have seen her walk away with a modest fine and a slap on the wrist. Generally, when faced with these kinds of charges, doctors plead ignorance or say they won’t do it again, but this time around Hänel decided that her patients have a right to information. Information, for example, about what to expect when visiting the clinic to have a pregnancy terminated, from what the procedure involves to what they should bring with them (clean underwear, cosy slippers, etc). The judge, however, agreed with prosecutors who claimed the information constituted an advertisement. The judge explained that the law was there to ensure that abortion would not become “normalized”. Just as an aside – around 70,000 women die annually due to unsafe abortions in countries where access to abortion is restricted. Is that the kind of “normal” we are working towards?   

Kristina Hänel. Photo: DPA

Now in case you’re wondering how the under-resourced German law enforcement authorities manage to find time to trawl the net looking for potential suspects, aka doctors, the short answer is – they don’t. The vast majority of cases result from charges being pressed by radical “pro-lifers”, Christian fundamentalists with too much time (and money) on their hands. Their most assiduous supporter is Klaus Günter Annen, who runs a website with the charming title “” featuring the names of most abortion service providers in Germany. Funnily enough, it’s not a bad place to get information if you are looking for a comprehensive record of other pro-choice allies.

For the past two decades, most of the charges have been pressed by Annen himself, but more recently, the number of cases has increased dramatically due to the fact the “pro-lifers” (actually, let’s call them anti-choicers) are growing bolder and have reportedly created their own legal association for this very purpose. There used to be around two to 14 cases a year, however, police statistics confirm that in 2015 there were 27, and in 2016 35 cases. While in the past most of this went largely unnoticed, the high-profile case involving Kristina Hänel has captured the attention of the media and the wider public; recent media reports confirm there are a number of other doctors facing similar charges at present.

The public support for Kristina Hänel has been overwhelming – over 155,000 people signed an online petition demanding that information about abortion should be freely available and that section 219a should be abolished. Hänel has since promised to challenge the verdict and take the legal battle to the next level, which could result in a hearing in the constitutional court later this year.

In the wake of the verdict, Germany’s more progressive political parties decided to join forces and request a parliamentary vote to abolish section 219a (the law pertaining to advertising abortion services). They don’t have much time to do so, because, once the new government is formed, the Social Democrats (SPD) will officially lose their motivation to ruffle the feathers of their conservative coalition partners.

The first hearing of the submission will take place on February 22nd and in theory there could be a slim majority in favour of abolishing the law. This would be a slap in the face for the right-wing AfD, strongly represented in the new parliament, who have advocated for stricter regulations around abortion and measures to promote a higher birth rate for (German) women. Their deputy chair, Beatrix von Storch, can be seen at the front of the anti-choice “March for Life” demonstrations in Berlin every year in September. Before taking up her mandate in the EU parliament, she successfully campaigned against EU-wide reforms around sexual and reproductive health and sex education in schools.

Anyway, the timing of this sudden burst of opposition to section 219a seems surprising, particularly given that politicians have had a while to do something about the regulation of abortion. Section 219a was introduced in 1933 by – you might have guessed already – the Nazi party, as part of sweeping reforms to criminalize Jewish doctors, communists and homosexuals. Until last year, when the media started reporting on the Hänel case and a lot of people came to realize how restrictive Germany’s abortion laws actually are, a liberalization seemed unlikely. If the vote goes ahead later this month and a small miracle sees a majority in favour of abolishing section 219a, I would pay good money to have a live camera on the floor of parliament filming Beatrix von Storch’s face.

Unfortunately, it’s looking like the Free Democrats (FDP) are getting ready to back down on their initial statements in support of scraping the law entirely and will instead propose a mere tweak of the wording, which would satisfy their demand for free information without giving women too much autonomy over their own bodies.

However, if the law doesn’t get overturned this time around, it’s safe to assume that it won’t be easy to put a lid back on the debate around reproductive rights in Germany and in other European countries. With the upcoming referendum on repealing the 8th amendment in Ireland, and the worsening situation for women in neighbouring country Poland, there are plenty of reasons to join the pro-choice bloc at the Frauen*kampftag demonstration on International Women’s Day (March 8, 2018) and the day of action organized by the Bündnis für sexuelle Selbstbestimmung in September in protest against the annual “March for Life” in Berlin.

By the way, if there are any lawyers reading this, I’d like to know if it’s possible to press charges against Klaus Günter Annen for advertising abortion services. I expect you’ll find my contact details on his website.

Kate Cahoon volunteers for the Bündnis für sexuelle Selbstbestimmung, a pro-choice advocacy group.


How German dialects are battling back against ‘Hochdeutsch’

Hochdeutsch (standard German) is what's taught in schools, and what you hear on mainstream TV. But a huge variety of dialects are alive and thriving - especially in Bavaria - says Augsburg local Nic Houghton.

How German dialects are battling back against 'Hochdeutsch'

Sometimes I wonder if German isn’t so much a language as it is an umbrella term for the thousand variations on a theme. When I speak to my Bavarian neighbours, what I hear is not the standard German or Hochdeutsch I was taught in so many hours of classes at the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Most are self aware enough to realise when they’ve strayed too far into dialect, or they simply look at my confused countenance and adjust when necessary. Others, such as the Kartoffel Bauer who comes to sell potatoes at the end of the street every Tuesday evening, can’t. He only speaks dialect, Schwabisch to be precise, and if you don’t know what he’s saying, well, no potatoes for you I’m afraid.

When you read about the history of the German language, you quickly realise that much of it is a story of the search for a standardised way of communicating across the country. From medieval merchants trying to sell their wares, or Protestant reformer Martin Luther printing the first German language bible, to the Brothers Grimm compiling the shared fairytales from across the country, all have had a hand in creating a version of German that can be understood by everyone, even someone as remedial as me. The reason for this quest for standardisation was that for centuries Germany was not only divided politically, but also linguistically. There wasn’t just one German language, there were hundreds. 

READ ALSO: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany 

The process of change wasn’t easy, nor was it always welcome. Many Germans then, as today, were proud of their versions of German that identified them as coming from a particular area or group, and they didn’t welcome the change. Writing was codified, but often the spoken language remained in defiance. Of course, progress is rather more of a steamroller than a welcome mat, and soon even the holdouts had to learn to communicate, especially once Germany became a nation in 1871. Many dialect speakers would learn standard German as a foreign language, much as I did, but they would still retain their own particular dialect in spoken form, passing it down to the next generation. 

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries.

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

My own experience of living in different parts of Bavaria has been a lesson in how stubbornly many protected their own dialects. In Nuremberg I was exposed to Fränkisch, which to my untrained ears sounded like whole sentences made up of only B, D and double G sounds. I then moved to Augsburg, where Swabisch is the dialect of choice and everything seems to have this sweeping ‘Schhhh’ sound or is legally required to end in the diminutive suffix ‘-le’; sometimes because the thing in question is small, sometimes because it is cute, and other times because it’s just fun to say words that end in ‘-le’. 

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Hochdeutsch became the ‘goal’

With all this dialect flying around, it might be assumed that the many versions of German were in rude health, however on closer inspection, that isn’t the case. As the late Germanic linguist Ulrich Ammon pointed out in the 1970s, dialect suffered from post-war conceptions of the correct way to speak German. Dialect was not only frowned upon wherever it was found, but it became interlinked with perceptions of intelligence. Hochdeutsch or High German, was the goal, not dialect. No one wanted to employ some dialect speaking bumpkin, the orthodoxy ran, and so children across the country were taught standardised German, and still are today.

Books, most German TV and radio, and dubbed British or American TV shows all follow the standard version of German too, which has become a concern for those lovers of dialects. They see the creeping homogenisation of the language, and in somewhere like Bavaria, which prides itself on being different from the other 15 states, this is a real problem. It’s just another erosion of the native culture, another traditional value lost, so it comes as no surprise that there are those out there who fight to preserve it. 

For an English speaker, especially from Britain, the discussion of dialect vs standard pronunciation seems familiar. For decades British children were taught that Received Pronunciation or the more grand “Queen’s English” was the goal of all speakers. This rather haughty, clipped version of English is still considered the standard in German schools, even though more modern preferences have taken hold in the UK. Where once the BBC was the beacon of standard pronunciation, through my lifetime I’ve seen different dialects of English become more prevalent and accepted. Now BBC newsreaders or announcers can come from around the country, and a Scouse, Brummy or Geordie isn’t automatically disqualified because they don’t sound as regal as they should. In Germany however, it might be a very long time before we hear dialect on the evening Tagesschau.

A teacher scores out "Tschüss" and writes regional greeting "Grüß Gott" on a board.

A teacher scores out “Tschüss” and writes regional greeting “Grüß Gott” on a board. Photo: Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

Not the end of dialects

So we may never see the varying dialect of German on the national news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in them. From my own experience I know that many local and national newspapers have monthly columns from linguists that promote dialects, while sharing the familiar and unfamiliar bits of dialect on Instagram can be a recipe for social media stardom. Others have been more focused on reopening education to dialect. In 2019, Bavaria’s Ministry for Education backed a project entitled “MundART WERTvoll” (dialect worth) which seeks to promote and reward schools, educators, and pupils for projects that focused on Bavarian dialects. This is not to say that dialect was suddenly spilling into standard classes, but that schools were now looking seriously at how to bring students both standard and dialect German.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

Of course, this wasn’t without criticism. The Bavarian Language Association was critical of the fact that many would still hide their dialects in situations where they wanted to be taken seriously, and by doing so they were only furthering the deterioration of Bavarian variations of German. Others went even further, Ludwig Zehetner, a writer famous for his articles about Bavarian dialects, declared that the efforts to preserve Bavarian dialects was commendable, but decades too late. The damage had already been done, all these projects were doing was caring “for a corpse”. 

Clearly at my level of German I’m no judge of the health of Bavarian dialects, but all I know is that I hear dialects far more than I hear standard German. If Bavaria’s dialects are dead, they’ve got a very funny way of showing it. Perhaps Germany has lost something from the drive for standardisation of language, but it doesn’t mean the end of dialects, I believe something so integral to people’s identities is harder to eradicate than that. Maybe some words fall out of favour, while others remain, but ultimately that’s how language works.