Dr Abortion fights for his 'dream job'

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FRIEDRICH STAPF is about to find out whether he can continue working in his native Bavaria, or must take his business elsewhere. In the coming weeks, Germany's Constitutional Court will rule on his suit against the Bavarian government. If he loses, he will open a new line of work. "Something like a travel agency for abortions," he says.

Abortions have been Dr Stapf's bread and butter for 20 years. Performing an average of 20 a day, he has notched up some 70,000 altogether. Some appreciate the service he provides, others loathe him, and to anti-abortionists who gather routinely outside his clinic, he is the notorious "mass killer" of Munich. "For legal reasons, they cannot call me a 'mass murderer', but technically, I cannot object to being branded a killer," he says.

Now, Dr Stapf is also a cause celebre. Two years ago he launched a legal challenge against Bavaria's draconian new abortion law, which sought to put the likes of him out of business. He won the first round, and has been allowed to pursue his work, pending the final verdict of Germany's highest court.

That decision is now imminent, but has been put on hold until the elections to the Bavarian assembly on 13 September, and to the federal parliament two weeks later, are out of the way. For a ruling in Dr Stapf's favour would be a grave embarrassment to Bavaria's right-wing government, and could trigger a constitutional crisis between the Federal Republic and its most conservative Land. Staunchly Catholic Bavaria's Sonderweg, a self-proclaimed right to pursue an independent course within the federation, is at stake.

The regional assembly, dominated by the Christian Social Union, passed the contentious Article 218 in 1995, and it came into effect in July the following year. Unable to overturn the more liberal federal law on abortions, Bavarians had set out to subvert it in their neck of the woods.

The new law authorises, for instance, searches on the premises of doctors suspected of carrying out abortions. It stipulates that only gynaecologists are allowed to terminate pregnancies, and that abortions cannot account for more than 25 per cent of a practice's turnover. The latter was clearly aimed at Dr Stapf's clinic, which provides no other service. And Dr Stapf happens to be a GP specialising in abortions, rather than a gynaecologist.

No one in Bavaria thinks this is a coincidence. "They came after us because we are the biggest such outfit," Dr Stapf says. His clinic, which employs several other doctors, carries out 6,000 abortions in Bavaria a year, about two-thirds of the total. Other such practices pale into insignificance.

But it is not just because of his work rate that Dr Stapf has earned the wrath of the government in Munich. Being an agnostic and speaking disrespectfully of the Pope does not count in his favour. He admits he is a left-winger imbued with the spirit of 1968, when he was a student in Frankfurt. He refers to the Bavarian government as "right-wing Catholic extremists".

His detractors are also offended by his fast and furious lifestyle. Now a mellowed 52, Dr Stapf has an unusual past for a doctor, including a short jail term for possession of cocaine, accusations of administering euthanasia in the 1970s to terminally ill cancer patients, and a particularly horrendous crash in his Mercedes at over 150mph. On top of it all, he almost brags about his calling, describing it as a "dream job".

"I became dedicated to this profession when, as a medical student, I saw so many so-called 'miscarriages'," he says. "They were in fact botched abortions, because such operations were then banned. When you see all that blood and lacerated tissue, you get angry."

He takes pride in the service his clinic provides, at DM490 (about pounds 172) a time, and rejects charges that he is killing embryos on a conveyor belt. "We employ professional nurses and psychological counsellors," he says.

Under German law, women wanting abortions must seek professional counsel at least three days before the operation, but the idea that someone would pop in from the street on a whim is simply ludicrous, Dr Stapf says. The number of abortions in Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany has stayed constant for the last 10 years, despite the readier availability of such clinics.

Nor will the numbers fall, Dr Stapf points out, if Bavaria wins the case and he is exiled. Women will just have to travel further. He already has a clinic in Stuttgart, in the neighbouring Land of Baden-Wurttemberg, and will open another in Austria. Both these states are Catholic, so his Bavarian patients should feel at home.