Germany should decriminalise abortion, says government commission

Group presents proposals to permit abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy

Abortion regimes in Germany and Poland are facing a radical shake-up as politicians study proposals to end restrictions that women’s groups say create stigma and, in some cases, an effective ban.

A German government commission has presented proposals to permit abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy by overhauling existing laws that make abortion fundamentally illegal, and punishable with a three-year prison sentence.

In practice, prosecutions are rare and exemptions widespread in Germany, with abortion widely available if the woman is less than 12 weeks pregnant, attends a consultation and waits three days before meeting a doctor.

Official figures show some 104,000 abortions were registered in 2022, up nearly 10 per cent on the previous year but down by a half since 2003.


“Abortion is associated with stigmatisation and one approach to ending this is decriminalisation,” said Prof Daphne Hahn. She is a member of an 18-member commission that presented recommendations to legalise abortion, lift preconditions and remove abortion from the criminal code – after 153 years.

The commission’s main argument for change is that the “concerns of the unborn child and the concerns of the pregnant woman” should be weighted differently depending on the phase of pregnancy.

Only when the unborn child is viable outside the womb, from around the 22nd week of pregnancy, should the protection of its life take priority over the pregnant woman’s request for an abortion, the report says.

It remains unclear if Berlin’s ruling coalition will implement the findings. The Social Democratic Party and Greens promised reform in their 2021 election manifestos. For senior SPD Bundestag politician Katja Mast “legislators should not threaten women who have an abortion, and are already in a difficult situation, with the criminal code”.

However, the liberal Free Democratic Party, the third party in the Berlin coalition, is anxious for more negotiation with experts before reform.

The opposition Christian Democratic Union has vowed to take legal action if the status quo – seen as a societal compromise on a divisive issue – is changed.

Catholic organisations have also been vocal in their opposition to a change that, one lay group claimed, “leaves the unborn completely defenceless in the first 12 weeks”.

Across the border in Poland, a push to liberalise the country’s effective ban on abortion is gathering pace after reform proposals by the government of Donald Tusk were referred to a parliamentary committee on Friday.

Poland’s socialist-era liberal abortion regime has been curtailed twice in the last 30 years. A 1993 so-called “abortion compromise” allowed legal terminations in three circumstances: if it threatened the mother’s life or health, if the pregnancy resulted from a criminal act such as rape or if the foetus was diagnosed with a severe birth defect.

In 2021 the latter reason was outlawed by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in a push against what its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski called “eugenic abortions”.

Now in opposition, and with abortion reform under way, Mr Kaczynski and former PiS prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki have called their 2021 near-ban a “mistake”. They favour a rollback to the 1993 compromise to “prevent the pendulum going too far the other way”.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin