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Abortion Paragraph 218: How Germany Criminalizes Women


It is the only medical intervention that is in the penal code - and probably every fifth woman has an abortion in her life. Hear why the issue becomes important again in the campaign.

218 - that stands for political explosive, and has been for almost 150 years.

That is how old Paragraph 218 is, which regulates abortions in Germany.

He still makes abortions a criminal offense.

And that since the founding of the German Empire in 1871. Over the years the regulation has been reformed, but to this day, termination of pregnancy is illegal.

He is only exempt from punishment under certain conditions.

How much political explosive there is in the topic to this day was shown again in Berlin last weekend.

Around 2,000 anti-abortion opponents and Christian fundamentalists met feminists and pro-choice gynecologists.

More than a year ago, the grand coalition tried to remove the subject of abortion from the political agenda: with a reform of paragraph 219a, the so-called ban on advertising for abortions.

The SPD and the Union have long argued about changes.

In this series of votes, the country manager of the consulting provider Profamilia explains what this reform really brought about.

And a doctor explains the consequences of the current legal situation for women.


Scroll to the podcast player at the beginning of the article and listen to the new podcast episode now.

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Sandra Sperber n

Welcome to

Voices Catching

the politics podcast from SPIEGEL.

I am Sandra Sperber.



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Sandra Sperber

218 - that stands for political explosive, and has been for almost 150 years.

That is how old paragraph 218 is, which regulates abortions in the German penal code.

[00:01:42] "

Pro-Choice" activists

Whether children or none we decide alone!


Sandra Sperber

How much political explosive there is in the subject to this day was shown again in Berlin last weekend.

Around 2,000 anti-abortionists and Christian fundamentalists met feminists and "pro-choice" gynecologists.

[00:01:57] "

Pro-Choice" activists

My body, my choice, raise your voice!


Sandra Sperber

It has now been more than a year since the grand coalition tried to


the subject of abortions from the political agenda by adopting a reform of the so-called advertising ban for Has had abortions.

In this episode of votes, we hear what this reform has really brought about and why the controversial issue of abortion in the upcoming federal election campaign could become even bigger despite the change in paragraph 219a.

Because the much more fundamental paragraph 218 has remained largely unchanged in the penal code for more than forty years.


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" gynecologist)

It stands next to murder and manslaughter - and in my opinion it doesn't belong there.


Sandra Sperber

The doctor we have just heard is one of those who called for the decriminalization of abortions last Saturday at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

And that this is not just a topic for doctors and feminists, is shown by a number that surprised me when researching this episode: It is estimated that every fifth woman in Germany will have an abortion in her life.

Presumably a lot of people like me are now - I don't have a girlfriend or colleague who I know has had an abortion.

And a man has never told me, because that's also part of the story, that his partner has terminated a pregnancy.

That shows how big the taboo on abortion still is.

One reason for this could be the legal situation in Germany.

And this is exactly where the so-called "Pro-Choice" movement comes in and calls for reforms that they believe are long overdue.


"Pro-Choice" activist

I'm 62, young women today still have to fight the same struggles as we fought in the 1970s.

I find that totally absurd and very frustrating.

That’s why I’m here, too, simply to support it even further.


Sandra Sperber

You are one of the few men here at the demo.

Why are you here?


"Pro-Choice" activist

I think it

goes without saying

that one advocates the right to abortion.

I am originally from the Netherlands myself, where it has been quite normal for a long time.

I am always amazed here that it is still so sluggish in Germany.

That is why I am here every year with my children and my wife to advocate that Germany finally arrives in the 21st century.


Sandra Sperber

Many people had hoped

that the reform of Paragraph 219a would take a step in this direction.

The forbids in Germany, quote: "Advertising for the termination of pregnancy".

The decisive factor at the time was the case of the Gießen gynecologist Kristina Hähnel, which we reported on here in the podcast in an episode in March 2018.

In reality, the advertising ban has meant that doctors were not even allowed to advertise on their websites that they even offer abortions.

Doctors are not allowed to advertise classically anyway - for none of their services.

At the beginning of 2019, after a long struggle, the grand coalition agreed on a reform of this regulation.


News broadcast

The Bundestag has now decided on a compromise by the governing coalition.

Doctors and clinics are allowed to inform that they are performing abortions.

Anything beyond that remains punishable.


News broadcast

Despite the


ban on advertising, there is now legal security for doctors, says the Family




Franziska Giffey (Federal Minister for Family Affairs, SPD)

We fought for the information as it is now to be improved.


News broadcast

Now the German Medical Association and the Center for Health Education are supposed to offer information - a compromise.


News broadcast



the compromise, but is not happy with it.


News broadcast

It was important for the Union to


Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (CDU chairwoman)

that it is ensured that regulations are not formulated into them that, at the end of the day, abolish the advertising ban, so to speak.


Sandra Sperber It was

almost a year and a half ago, and I wanted to know what really changed the decision on 219a.

Can women who are unintentionally pregnant actually find out more information?


Sibylle Schreiber (Pro Familia Berlin)

We don't have the feeling that

anything has changed for the better


It's a real farce and it's also window dressing.


Sandra Sperber

That says Sibylle Schreiber.

She is the regional manager of Pro Familia in Berlin.

In around 180 counseling centers nationwide, the association offers what is known as pregnancy conflict counseling, which every woman in Germany must take before an abortion.

So I asked Sibylle Schreiber whether women are now better informed through the reform of 219 a?


Sibylle Schreiber (Pro Familia Berlin)

I would say that for most women it is kind of a shock: "So I am unintentionally pregnant, what do I do now?"

And then maybe they do some research.

But I think it's more like: "What do I have to do now?"

And then it is often our job.

We often do that by saying: "That would be possible because you are in the umpteenth week".

It is also about costs, I have to say.

For example, our list says how much it costs.

Most women have to pay for that privately.

And these are all things that they do not even partially know.


Sandra Sperber

Because you can't find it on the internet.


Sibylle Schreiber (Pro Familia Berlin)

Yes, because they couldn't find it on the Internet, or because they wouldn't, I would say, have the peace of mind to do it.


Sandra Sperber

Well, despite the reform, there is still a great

need for



Sibylle Schreiber (Pro Familia Berlin)

It always depends on where the women come up with, on which pages.

How quickly do you get to the pages that are clearly laid out and that really offer all the information and that you are not misdirected and then eventually end up with the anti-abortionists.


Sandra Sperber

Since the reform of the advertising ban, there is also an official list on the Internet for the first time of doctors who perform abortions at all.


Sibylle Schreiber (Pro Familia Berlin)

The doctors themselves come on the list if they want to.

And that they were written to, I think that happened.

But they still don't put themselves on the list.

You don't have to.


Sandra Sperber

So, this list is very, very incomplete?


Sibylle Schreiber (Pro Familia Berlin)

Yes, it's a joke.

It really is a joke!

This nationwide list actually didn't bring anything.

That is also because it is a taboo subject.

Many doctors are also attacked, so they don't like to make it public.

I have the feeling that the whole social climate is changing for the worse, that women then have to justify themselves even more than before.


Sandra Sperber

So only around a quarter of the doctors who offer abortions have even been put on the public list of the medical association.

Around 300 addresses are currently listed, including the gynecologist Jana Maeffert.

She is employed in a Berlin gynecological practice and regularly takes to the streets against abortion laws.


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" gynecologist)

We are of course all affected by the political situation there, what is happening with the 219a and otherwise, like the care in Germany at the moment is partially no longer given.

That's why I think it's very important that we are also represented as a group of doctors.


Sandra Sperber

What should change in Germany from your point of view?


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" gynecologist)

I think a lot should change.

These are not just the laws that have to change, but also all of this lack of acceptance of abortion that simply prevails in Germany.


Sandra Sperber

I talked to her again on the phone, away from the demo, to understand why you, as a doctor, did not go far enough with the reform of the advertising ban.


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" gynecologist)

It is simply the case that an unwanted pregnancy and the


of pregnancy is not, in my opinion, seen for what it is, namely a part of our society .

It just exists.

There are abortions and there are quite a few unwanted pregnancies.

There are hundreds of thousands of abortions a year.

I have very, very often women who say, "Oh God, do you do this a lot?"

And then I say: "Yes, of course. You are one of so and so many thousands a year. And about every fifth woman in Germany had an abortion at the end of her fertile life".

And then they all look at me with really big eyes.

And then I always think it shouldn't really be like that.

Rather, women need to know that they are sure to have a girlfriend who has or will have an abortion.

And I think that as long as that is unsaid or subject to such a taboo, of course you cannot get out of this corner as a doctor to have the feeling that you are participating in something that is somehow tolerated, but does not really belong on this professional profile of the gynecologist.


Sandra Sperber

And what


of patients are those who come to you?


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" gynecologist)

Most of the couples who come to me - you really have to say - couples come frequently, after all, they are adults who have a contraception failure .

That's actually most of it.

And if you look at that, we have very good data due to the mandatory reporting, you can see about 60 percent of women are mothers, and about the group of 20 to 30-year-old women is just as large as the group of 30- up to 40 year old women.

And most of them are responsible.

Because of their situation in life, they decided with a lot of thought that they did not want to bear this responsibility of pregnancy.

I think that's responsible.

And when I look at the circumstances under which women sometimes have children, I don't think that's any more responsible, I'll say, than a deliberate abortion.


Sandra Sperber

How is that for the doctors?

Is that a completely normal part of the job for the gynecologists, for their colleagues?


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" gynecologist)

Yes, apparently somehow not.

So, I'm completely at a loss as well.

So when I look at my colleagues, I always think: How can it be that only about two out of ten abortions?

I can't understand that at all.

And that's what I think there has to be such a rethink.

It has to be somehow clear that if I become a gynecologist and deal with this issue of reproductive health, then I simply know that it can happen to me that there is a woman sitting in front of me who does not scream "yhew" when she is pregnant, but she says: "I do not want to be pregnant. I am pregnant, I do not want to. Please help me that this can now be solved medically and competently".

It's part of our job.

We all do one piece and not one is the abortion doctor and the other is the obstetrician, we are simply specialists in gynecology and obstetrics - and that includes unwanted pregnancies.


Sandra Sperber

How is it that there are fewer and fewer doctors who offer this?


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" gynecologist)

Now it is the case that actually the doctors who offer it still have a political motivation.

And there are just not that many.

It has to be said, I think there are few who are very activist and there are very few who have real moral problems and who are really on the side of the "anti-choice" movement.

There aren't that many doctors actually.

The vast majority of doctors are relatively apolitical and, it must be said, a bit comfortable.


Sandra Sperber

In addition, some of the doctors and doctors who speak publicly about the operation and advocate more women's rights have to endure the hatred of anti-abortionists.

From demos in front of the practice to insults and massive threat messages.

Last weekend, this partly radical movement met on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate.

Within earshot of Jana Maeffert, with whom I will speak again afterwards, and her colleagues.

[00:13:30] This is where the so-called "March for Life", around 2,000 anti-abortionists, gathers in front of a large stage on which a band is playing Christian pop music.

At first glance, the event looks pious.

As if it had little to do with the threats and hateful messages some doctors receive every day from fanatical anti-abortionists.


Music on "Pro-Life" protest

You are a child and you are welcome on earth.

May all your dreams come true.

This is our song for you.


Sandra Sperber

The irritating


is: Most of the participants here are men.

In addition to youth groups, there are women in ankle-length skirts, pastors or parents of children with disabilities.

All of them could make a meaningful contribution to an important social debate which it should indeed be controversial.

But if you listen to speakers like the nun Monja Boll more closely, you notice how the religious consciously emotionalises the audience through misinformation and leads them astray.


Monja Boll ("Pro-Life" activist)

The massive killing of

very young

children or starving millions of embryos on maternity leave by taking the abortion pill - should that be a human right?


Sandra Sperber



and an abortion through starvation - both of which are of course nonsense.

Nevertheless, the event is officially supported by Protestant and Catholic bishops, who contribute greetings for the website of the organizer, as well as various Union politicians, including Philipp Amthor.

And the AfD politician Beatrix von Storch even came in person to march through Berlin-Mitte with a cross in hand.

Just as terrifying - the image of women that is conveyed on stage.

A chaplain tells of his revival experience as an anti-abortion opponent:


"Pro-Life" activist

My sister, my sister is also a "Pro-Liferin" and she was standing in front of a clinic and a woman came and she spoke to her.

The woman cries: "I'm overworked and now I'm still pregnant. I can't do it."

My sister asked her a question: "Would it help you if I came once a week to clean your apartment?"

And this question surprised the woman so much that she got into the car and drove away.

And exactly a few months later, exactly on Christmas, I received a call: A healthy child has been born and the mother was overjoyed.

I wanted to be a "pro-lifer".


Sandra Sperber

A woman who allegedly wants to end a pregnancy because of too much housework.

Anyone who believes that those affected make the decision so easy for themselves obviously has a very woodcut-like image of women.

In general, anti-abortion opponents rarely talk about men.

The professionally printed posters show a mother and her peacefully slumbering newborn baby - no trace of the father.


Pro-life activist

Everyone has the right to help with life.


Sandra Sperber

After all: A youth group wears T-shirts with the imprint: "Real men stand by their children".

Unfortunately, the reality is different.

According to the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, 90 percent of single parents in Germany are women.

They are considered to be particularly at risk of poverty.

Almost 40 percent of single parent households are dependent on state benefits.

That doesn't fit with the images of child happiness that the anti-abortionists present here.


Pro-life activist

First demand: We stand up for the right to life of children from conception, because every child is equally valuable.


Sandra Sperber

I am describing the demonstrators in such detail because I believe that this well-networked movement has a decisive influence on the social climate.

And that is reflected in the laws and thus very specifically in health care.

This is not only stressful for those affected, but also often for the doctors who perform abortions.

That is why some doctors came to protest against the so-called "March for Life".

From their point of view, the reform of paragraph 219a is far from sufficient.


"Pro-Choice" gynecologist

I am a resident


and do abortions.

We have a situation where on the one hand the termination of pregnancy is illegal, but on the other hand we don't have any free contraceptives either.

For a country that thinks it wants to protect life, it is a scandal that this is not health, but that women from the age of 22 have to shell out themselves.


"Pro-Choice" activists

We are budding doctors, and we stand for the right to stand up for women's rights and perform abortions without the fear of putting ourselves in danger.


Sandra Sperber  

It's about paragraph 218 in the penal code.

He still makes abortions a criminal offense - and has done so since 1871, when the German Empire was founded.

The regulation has been reformed over the years, but abortion is still illegal.

He is only exempt from punishment under certain conditions, for example within twelve weeks after fertilization and after a mandatory consultation.

Just in time for the 150th anniversary of this abortion paragraph and for the 2021 federal election year, activists and doctors like Jana Maeffert, who we heard about at the beginning of this episode, finally want to push a reform.


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" gynecologist)

It's not just about the woman's body, it's about the woman's entire life.

We will keep having this difficulty and I think it makes total sense in society to just talk about what you do with this topic.

But I think it just has no place in the penal code.

It has lost something in the doctors' regulations.

And many other countries are showing that this is possible.

This location in the penal code is relatively unique in Germany.

You just have to say that, it is next to murder and manslaughter.

And in my opinion it doesn't belong there.


Sandra Sperber

The 218, he makes that a criminal offense.

With the exception that you take this advice route beforehand.

Doesn't that also lead to this social climate?


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" gynecologist)

Yes, definitely.

It is simply clear that social stigmatization makes it possible to leave certain laws in place, which lead to the fact that the stigmatization actually continues and that the women who are affected have problems that are safe and timely, To get local care, which they should actually be entitled to and which they are entitled to.


Sandra Sperber


kind of

support would you like from politics?


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" woman doctor)

So very clear messages of protection, of course.

So it goes without saying that advertisements will be followed up immediately even if there is hostility.

That this is taken seriously, that there are just such hate mails against individual colleagues;

that there are clearly banned miles, for example, in front of the pregnancy advice centers.

And of course I think that Paragraph 219a would have been a huge opportunity to show that it is going in the right direction and we are not stuck in the wall that this restriction exists.


Sandra Sperber  

Now it will be exciting to


whether and how the parties will

pick up

the topic again in the upcoming election campaign.

Because in the case of a red-red-green alliance after the federal election, the so-called ban on advertising for abortions should really tip.

SPD politicians such as health expert Karl Lauterbach had already made it clear after the reform of 219a that the compromise did not go far enough for them.


Karl Lauterbach (SPD)

A clear abolition of 219a would have been the cleanest solution in my opinion.

That could not be done with the Union.


Sandra Sperber It

gets more complicated with paragraph 218 and the question of whether Germany should regulate abortions in the penal code in 2021 as well.

For doctors like Jana Maeffert, this regulation is the real problem because it makes abortion generally a criminal offense.

In the SPD, the Jusos in particular have been calling for paragraph 218 to be abolished. The Left Party is clearer:


Katja Kipping (Die Linke)

One of the experiences of East German women is the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy without being criminalized.

Today women in East and West across Europe have to fight together again and again for this matter of course.

I find that untenable.

The deletion of paragraphs 218 and 219a is therefore also deeply a question of social justice.

These paragraphs must go, and as quickly as possible.


Sandra Sperber

The Greens are not



In autumn they want to adopt a new basic program.

The draft says that abortions have no place in the penal code.

However, there is also resistance within the party to the deletion of paragraph 218, for example from the Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg Kretschmann.

It will be exciting with a view to a possible black-green coalition in the federal government.

Party leader Annalena Baerbock had previously attacked the Union for her stance on the advertising ban.


Annalena Baerbock (Chairwoman of Bündnis90 / Die Grünen)

And if you are in the situation that you don't know whether to have an abortion or not, then you don't need any wise advice.

Then you need information and a gynecologist to help you.

And that's why I expect or I ask you: Take up topic 219a.

This is what women expect in this country.

Thank you very much and look forward to a good cooperation.


Sandra Sperber  

A collaboration to delete 219 A or even 218 in a joint coalition with the Union?

Difficult to imagine.

Activists like the gynecologist Jana Maeffert want to remind people of the issue again and again in the election year.


Jana Maeffert ("Pro-Choice" gynecologist)

It's not like the topic has ever disappeared.

It will be back from next year, just to think carefully from the side, so to speak, why is there actually the 218?

And why has it existed for a hundred and fifty years?

And it will not be shaken.

But of course I'm not giving up this hope that things will continue.

No matter who is in government, that's clear.

I am optimistic that the topic will be discussed until there is a social assessment that, in my opinion, does justice to the termination of pregnancy.

It's part of our life, it's part of every society, and unwanted pregnancies are part of sexuality.


Sandra Sperber

The "Pro-Choice" demonstration over the weekend was the prelude to a new campaign under the motto "150 Years of Resistance Against Paragraph 218".

But even if the activists are successful and soon bring about a real reform of the German abortion law - abortions will probably remain a controversy and above all a taboo topic for a long time.

[00:24:37] That was the vote for this week.

If you want to send us feedback on the episode or would like to suggest a topic, you are welcome to write to us at

Or you can send us a WhatsApp message or speak to our mailbox on 040 380 80 400. You will hear Voices Catching again next Thursday, as always on, on Spotify, via Apple Podcasts and of course in all common podcast apps.

I'm Sandra Sperber and this week I was supported in the production by Jelena Berner, Charlotte Meyer-Hamme, Philipp Fackler, Johannes Kückens, Matthias Streitz, Philipp Wittrock and Yasemin Yüksel.

Our voice-catching music comes from Davide Russo.

Source: spiegel

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