In Weimar Germany, Women Fought for Abortion Justice
Abortion was illegal in Weimar Germany — and poor women were most often punished for breaking the law. The fight for legalization was also a struggle for the justice reform and welfare measures that would truly empower working-class women.
This week, the Supreme Court blocked vaccine mandates for businesses, affirming individual choice in vaccination even as it prepares to radically curtail abortion rights. The refrain “my body, my choice,” with its emphasis on individual rights, was easily appropriated by the Right and turned into a slogan for anti-vaxxers.
But looking back to the struggle for abortion access in the Weimar Republic, between World War I and the rise of the Nazi dictatorship, we can find a different way of framing this demand. While denouncing the expropriation of reproductive and domestic labor, this call for abortion rights was articulated less as a matter of individual self-determination than as a statement of solidarity: “Your body belongs to you!”
Abortion remained illegal throughout the Weimar era, yet also extremely commonplace. At the height of the Depression, the number of abortions in Germany was estimated at close to 1 million per year — almost one abortion for every live birth. Both procuring and providing abortions were banned by Paragraphs 218 and 219 of the German Criminal Code. A woman found guilty of having an abortion would be sentenced to a minimum of six months’ penal servitude, and as many as five years.
In response to women’s new voting rights as well as grassroots protests, parties on the Left incorporated abortion reform into their platforms starting in 1920. In 1926, reforms pushed through by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD) and the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD) decreased mandatory sentences for people who obtained abortions, though penalties against lay providers were increased. The following year, a Supreme Court decision allowed for abortions for medical reasons. Today, though further reformed, Paragraph 218 is still on the books in Germany, and medical exemptions or proof of rape are required to use public insurance to cover the cost as well as to access abortions after the first trimester.
The introduction of medical exemptions in 1927 put abortions within reach of those women who had access to a sympathetic family doctor and money to pay for the consultation and procedure. It also highlighted class differences in access and criminalization, and the vast majority of women who were charged and convicted of having abortions were poor.
The Weimar-era debates exhibit both striking similarities and differences with the current politics of abortion. Indeed, the terms of this dispute from a century ago often made explicit some of what goes unsaid today. Then, too, abortion was a politically polarized issue: the KPD was the only major party to advocate for full legalization, while the SPD and some centrist parties pushed for more incremental reforms. But unlike today, the terms of the debate focused neither on individual rights nor on moral values.
No Longer Making Cannon Fodder
The debate about abortion in 1920s Germany embodied the wider political stakes of this era, with arguments around social justice, on the one side, and ethnonationalism, on the other. The fight for abortion rights was a fight for liberation from an exploitative system of reproductive labor, and for emancipation from a legal system that imprisoned working-class people.
In the Weimar period, women became visible in public life in ways they had not been before: voting, participating in athletic clubs and political organizations, working in sectors traditionally reserved for men (including heavy industry), wearing short skirts and short hair, and dating other women. In the culture wars of the Weimar Republic, women were associated with all that was negative, superficial, and decadent about popular culture; their new freedoms were seen by conservatives as a dire threat to the family and the future of the nation. By 1932, Berlin had the lowest birth rate in the world — a shift that meant liberation and an increased quality of life for many but that also signaled national decline for others.
The fight against abortion was primarily a fight to increase the birth rate to rebuild Germany’s military and economic strength, as well as a fight to keep women at home. The refrain of Bertolt Brecht’s “Ballad of Paragraph 218” parrots a doctor refusing to grant a medical exemption to a homeless woman: “Now then, be a nice little mother / And go make a piece of cannon fodder.”
The demand to legalize abortion was framed within a broader call for social welfare programs, as well as a fight against a rigged justice system. Mobilizations against Paragraph 218 were often responses to court cases. Charges against abortion providers frequently ballooned into mass trials that became local or national causes célèbres. In Cultures of Abortion in Weimar Germany, Cornelie Usborne tells the story of how the 1924 arrest of one abortion provider in a small village outside Frankfurt turned into a trial of ninety-three codefendants, demolishing the social networks of this rural area and leading to public outcry.
On the last day of 1930, the pope promulgated the Casti Connubii encyclical which forbade Catholics from using contraceptives and reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s stance against abortion. Then, in February 1931, two doctors, Friedrich Wolf and Else Kienle, along with 300 of their patients, were charged with violating the abortion ban. Even before his arrest, Wolf was well-known for his documentary play, Cyankali (Cyanide), which was adapted into a movie about a working-class woman who dies after a botched abortion. Over 1,500 protests sparked by the arrests took place across Germany for International Women’s Day on March 8, 1931. When the doctors were released following a seven-day hunger strike by Kienle, they spoke at a rally of 15,000 people in Berlin.
These protests were coordinated by a broad alliance of political and social organizations on the Left, birth control advocacy groups, female and socialist physician associations, and a celebrity committee including Albert Einstein and screenwriter Thea von Harbou. Groups like the Society for Sexual Reform linked the fight for abortion with the fight to legalize homosexuality. The 1931 protests were accompanied by sympathetic press coverage in progressive newspapers, including a special segment in Die Welt am Abend in which women recounted their own abortion stories.
Protests called not simply for the right to have an abortion but also for abortions to be publicly funded. Members of the Association of Socialist Doctors linked access to abortion to a much broader program of maternal and pediatric health, ranging from more public funding to combat infant mortality to free school lunches. At the same time, the Rote Hilfe (Red Aid) organization, a legal aid group linked to the KPD, provided free legal defense for people charged under Paragraph 218. These organizations worked hand in hand, sometimes quite literally as in the case of Hilde Benjamin, a Rote Hilfe lawyer, and her husband Georg Benjamin (the younger brother of the philosopher Walter Benjamin), a pediatrician working in low-income public clinics and an activist in the Association of Socialist Doctors.
Poems, films, novels, and plays about abortion proliferated during the Weimar Republic. These works, themselves censored to various degrees, sought to bring Paragraph 218 into public debate. Wolf’s play was only one of two documentary plays about 218 that premiered in fall 1929, the other play was written by Carl Credé, yet another doctor who served time in prison for providing abortions. At the premiere of Credé’s play, the leftist theater impresario Erwin Piscator placed actors speaking about abortion from multiple perspectives in the audience and then opened the discussion to the public, ending with a vote on whether to repeal 218. It was, as Piscator put it, the first time “the ending of a play corresponded to a public meeting.” Many of these works emphasized the radically different positions of bourgeois and working-class women. At the tail end of the 1931 wave of protests, a magazine by and for working-class radio amateurs published this anonymous poem:
They had just sat down to a fancy tête-à-tête
Discussing a lovely pink spring outfit
(A creation of Herpich and Son)
When the radio switched on
. . .
“Education is everything” explained Mrs Blauer
“I’m endlessly impressed with Women’s Radio Hour
It has such refined themes
(Would you care for some pralines?)
Women’s Hour is an amazing platform!
‘Training for Marriage and Marriage Reform’
Was recently the lecture of the day —
(Have you read that Van de Velde essay?)”
“Well, sometimes,” yawned the fat Mrs Meek
“They could have classier people speak
Recently, a welfare doctor was on Women’s Hour
I immediately shut off the power!”
Mrs Blauer protested, “Come though,
I loved the Mother’s Day show
They talked so much about the event
Each of my children got me a present!”
While these women continued to gossip and rave
Another proletarian mother was brought to her grave
For that woman, whom no priest would lament,
She had enough with one present.
That which the world talks about with hate
The Woman-killing Paragraph 218
The radio will not even debate.
In the Weimar Republic, as today, women themselves were some of the staunchest opponents of gender equality. Shortly after female suffrage was enshrined in the 1918 Weimar Constitution, a women-led group strikingly called the League for the Prevention of the Emancipation of Women submitted a petition to Parliament asking that their suffrage be revoked. When it came to abortion, the Union of German Women’s Clubs — a national umbrella group for bourgeois women’s organizations — was firmly against the full repeal of Paragraph 218. Hilde Adler, a doctor and prominent member of the union, wrote in the union’s magazine that legalizing abortion would result in a catastrophic decline in birth rates, which would exacerbate the “life-destroying” effects of the Treaty of Versailles. Furthermore, she warned, legal abortion would cultivate a new “type” of promiscuous woman who would threaten the ideal of feminine motherliness, the family itself, and thereby also the social unity of the “national community” (Volksgemeinschaft).
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that this discourse around family, maternity, and nation was racialized from the start. The fact that a Jewish woman doctor like Adler could link the ideal of bourgeois motherhood to the nation, using the very same terms the Nazis would later use, reveals how deeply these ideas of domesticity and nation were embedded. By the early 1930s, the specter of a Jewish doctor aborting German fetuses was a popular trope in National Socialist propaganda. For the Nazis, it was not abortion itself that was the problem, but the threat of a declining birth rate among German women. This attitude was reflected under Nazi rule, during which people with disabilities, Jewish women, and Russian and Polish forced laborers were subjected to forced abortions and sterilizations, while an ethnically German woman found guilty of aborting an Aryan fetus could be executed.
Today, Paragraph 218 still stands in the German Criminal Code, albeit amended. Abortions are not technically legal in Germany, but if they are carried out within the first fourteen weeks of pregnancy (after a consultation and three-day waiting period), they are exempt from punishment. Concern over the low birth rate is still a key political issue in Germany today. The real fear, of course, is not that the nation will run out of children, workers, or taxpayers. If Europe wants children, there are plenty of them drowning and freezing on its borders. But they are, obviously, not the right kind of children.
The history of the Weimar Republic starkly demonstrates that class, nationality, and race are as salient as gender when we think about restrictions on abortion. And we don’t need to look as far back as the Germany of a century ago for a political platform that links the fight for abortion access with the demand for universal health care, living wages, and criminal justice reform. Black-led organizations in the United States like In Our Own Voice and SisterSong have long been calling for a reproductive justice framework that would incorporate all of these things, supporting abortion rights alongside the right to have and raise children in safe and sustainable environments. But mainstream national organizations have been slow to shift from a liberal focus on choice and the legal fight for the right to abortion, and toward a more radical approach to intersecting oppressions It is time to move past “choice.” As Georg Benjamin wrote in 1932, abortion must be understood as a political question, and it deserves a revolutionary answer.