The Renaissance of Germany’s Abortion Rights Movement

As Germany’s natalist far right rises, a growing progressive movement is challenging the country’s Nazi-era abortion laws.

A young woman holds up a sign that reads: "Abortion is OK" at the beginning of a march for women's rights at Schlesisches Tor on International Women's Day on March 8, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty

In November 2017, German doctor Kristina Hänel was found guilty of breaking Paragraph 219a of the German Criminal Code and fined €6,000 by the Gießen District Court. Her crime? Listing abortion as a medical service on her practice’s website.

Dr. Hänel was charged under Nazi-era Paragraph 219a, which criminalizes advertising abortion services. The offense is punishable with up to two years in prison for anyone who publicly “offers, announces or recommends services for pregnancy termination.” In court, Hänel’s defense lawyer argued that her website remains informational and does not meet the definition of advertising. Nonetheless, the Gießen judge found Dr. Hänel guilty, justifying the ruling, “Lawmakers do not want to discuss abortion in public as if it were a normal thing.” Except, as Dr. Hänel and many women know, abortion is a normal thing. Over 100,000 individuals in Germany choose to terminate unwanted pregnancies each year.

Although abortion is a common procedure in Germany, it remains technically illegal under Paragraph 218, where it is listed next to murder and manslaughter. Only through a subsequent amendment is abortion permitted, granted specific requirements are met: pregnant people must obtain an abortion within the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, after completing mandatory counseling with a certified counselor, and waiting four days between counseling and procedure. Abortion is not covered by health insurance except for very low-income individuals or in the case of rape or crime. Kate Cahoon, a leading member of the Bündnis für sexuelle Selbstbestimmung (Alliance for Sexual Self-Determination) argues “the fact that abortion is still regulated by the criminal code in Germany shows that we still have a long way to go in the fight for sexual and reproductive rights.” She continues: “Paragraph 219a is only part of the problem, it’s Paragraph 218 that makes abortion a crime — feminists and socialists have been fighting for its abolition for over a century.”

Old Demons

Anti-abortion activists have been using Paragraph 219a to systematically target and intimidate abortion providers for years. Anti-abortion fundamentalist Klaus Günter Annen of “Nie Wieder e.V” — “Never Again,” equating abortion with the Holocaust —reports up to twenty-seven doctors to the authorities annually. Dr. Hänel has faced charges twice before, including in 2008. And she is not alone: in 2006 a Bayreuth doctor was fined for advertising abortion, while another was charged after her name was listed online as a provider. This year, gynecologists Nora Szász and Natascha Nicklaus of Kassel have been charged. Most reported doctors choose to remove factual information from their websites to comply with the law. That’s why Dr. Hänel is such a rallying point for reproductive-rights activists: by refusing to back down, she has galvanized the campaign to abolish the law.

When abortion is stigmatized and made taboo, there are negative consequences for those seeking abortion and within broader societal discourse. There is no comprehensive list of abortion providers readily available online, and websites like — a sexual-health site for teens — don’t even mention the word. Individuals must go to pregnancy counselors in person to receive information, costing time and travel. This is compounded for individuals whose first language isn’t German, or those who travel from Poland to Germany and are required to wait the obligatory four days. Hospitals don’t have to offer abortion services, and many doctors do not study abortion during their medical training. In December 2016, chief physician of Capio Elbe-Jeetzel Clinic of Dannenberg, Dr. Thomas Börner, refused to perform or allow abortions to be performed in his clinic on “religious grounds.” That means there are areas of Germany where abortions are almost impossible to procure — either due to lack of information or a lack of practicing doctors.

Yet there’s one group that is not censored when it comes to abortion: anti-abortion fundamentalists. Filled with untruths and photoshopped images, is the only website that features a list of German abortion providers. “I don’t want women to have to go to the websites of anti-abortion activists to find a list of doctors who do pregnancy terminations,” Dr. Hänel argued after her court case. The fact that is able to spread lies about abortion while medical practitioners who offer factual information about the procedure are criminally charged, shows how the law privileges anti-abortionists over the lives of women.

The attack on Dr. Hänel in the autumn of 2017 has much to do with a right wing that feels emboldened in the wake of the September elections, in which the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) won ninety-four seats in the Bundestag, becoming Germany’s third-largest party. AfD opposes abortion, and “all attempts to downplay abortions, government support for abortions, or to declare abortions as a human right.” Prominent member Beatrix von Storch — granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk — leads the annual anti-abortion march in Berlin. (She also made headlines when she argued that border police should have the right to shoot women and children refugees trying to enter Germany.)

AfD’s anti-abortion position is part of their xenophobic and pro-natalist ideology, which sees Germany’s (white) population threatened by falling birthrates and rising foreign immigration. Section 6.2 of their political program, “Larger Families instead of Mass Immigration” warns that immigrant families with higher birthrates than German families will “hasten the ethnic-cultural changes in society.” AfD’s answer to this “problem” is straight out of the fascist playbook: “Germany’s negative demographic trend has to be counteracted… The only mid- and long-term solution is to attain a higher birth rate by the native population by stimulating family policies.”

Ad from Alternative for Germany’s 2017 election campaign.

This is particularly chilling given the eugenicist origins of Paragraph 219a — part of the Nazis’ “racial hygiene” program that sought to forcibly increase the “Aryan” population and decrease that of the “destroyers of the culture,” such as Jews, foreigners, and “individuals unworthy of life.” Shortly after its introduction in 1933, the Berlin Council of Physicians argued that practice of abortion “shall be exterminated with a strong hand … proceedings will be taken against every evil-doer who dares to injure our sacred healthy race.” Meanwhile, Hitler awarded women with four or more children the Cross of Honor of the German Mother.

This invocation of “racial hygiene” is visible in Alternative for Germany’s election poster, which features a blond pregnant woman’s midsection and the caption, “New Germans? We make our own.”

Fighting Back

But while AfD has benefited by positioning itself as the anti-establishment party — in distinction to the new grand coalition of center-left Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democratic Union — organizing against 219a helped shift the terms of the debate. A petition of support for Dr. Hänel garnered over 155,000 signatures and motivated dozens of solidarity events and actions. The Bündnis für sexuelle Selbstbestimmung’s social media campaign #WegMit219a continues to gain traction and presence in the media, and women are coming forward to talk about their abortions. Kate Cahoon explains, “A lot of people had no idea that this law existed before this campaign. I think that’s why it gained traction so quickly — people were shocked and wanted to take a stand.”

The debate has also moved into government. The federal states of Bremen, Berlin, Brandenburg, and Hamburg are attempting to remove the clause through an initiative in the upper house of parliament, while in the Bundestag the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Left Party, and even the neoliberal Free Democratic Party have all introduced legislation to remove or significantly reform 219a, sparking the first debate on the law in twenty years. And while the Social Democrats initially dropped their proposal as they moved into coalition with the Christian Democratic Union, activists have vowed to keep up pressure to remove the paragraph once and for all.

On International Women’s Day in Berlin, around 6,000 people demonstrated, many carrying banners and signs demanding the removal of the Nazi paragraph. Cahoon sees the momentum behind #WegMit219a as “a big step in the direction of breaking down the stigma and silence around abortion rights.” A victory on 219a would be an important move towards decriminalization and destigmatization. It would not only be a victory for women and doctors in Germany; it would also strike a blow against the racist pro-natalism of AfD and the fascist legacy upon which the paragraph is based.