Court annuls Germany's liberal law on abortion: Angry reaction as country 'takes a step back into the Middle Ages'

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The Independent Online
A COURT of eight judges (seven men and one woman) yesterday overruled the German parliament's decision to liberalise the country's abortion laws.

The parliament voted last year by a large majority in favour of a new law. But the net effect of the court's complex, 180-page ruling is that abortions will now be more difficult to obtain - instead of easier, as the parliament had intended.

The judgment brought angry reactions across the country: there was sharp criticism of the court itself, and complaints that Germany was 'taking a step back into the Middle Ages'.

As of 16 June, one of the very few laws that was more liberal in East Germany than in West Germany will have to be overturned, in order to conform with yesterday's judgment, handed down by the constitutional court in Karlsruhe - the nearest equivalent to Britain's Law Lords. The ruling is sharply at odds not only with last year's parliamentary decision, but also with German public opinion, especially in the east. More than three-quarters of those in the east want their abortion laws to remain in force.

The parliamentary vote in June 1992 seemed, at the time, to have settled the issue. Now, new laws will have to be prepared. Theoretically, the issue could again end up before the court, if (as happened last year) conservative groups choose to complain once more. In the meantime, the country's abortion laws remain suspended between past and future.

Until now, women in eastern Germany have continued to enjoy more or less free access to abortion. According to the new all-German law passed by the parliament last year, women in western Germany were to gain approximately the same rights as those enjoyed by women in the east for the last 20 years.

The judges have said 'no' to that. Instead, abortion enters an extraordinary legal limbo, where it is deemed 'unconstitutional', in most circumstances, but not punishable. In practice, this will mean that 'unconstitutional' abortion can only be carried out privately, instead of on the German equivalent of the National Health Service.

Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, welcomed the court's decision, and called on 'all other state bodies and all social groups to recognise the authority of the constitutional court and the legal effect of its decision'. But there was widespread criticism, too. Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, a candidate for the leadership of the opposition Social Democrats, complained bitterly of a 'two-class law'. She said: 'As in former times, the only women who can have abortions are those who have money.'

One of Mr Kohl's cabinet ministers, Irmgard Schwaetzer, deputy leader of the Free Democrats, said she was 'deeply disappointed' with the court judgment, which she described as 'the most unreal thing I have heard for a long time'. The judgment was supported by six of the eight judges, after nine months of debate behind closed doors. Ms Schwaetzer called for the role of the constitutional court to be discussed. 'It cannot be right that six judges can, at a stroke, destroy what the majority of parliament and the people want,' she said.

In the 1970s, abortion was at the forefront of the political debate. Since then, it has dropped down the agenda. It is unclear if the anger at the Karlsruhe decision will increase the heat once more. Karola von Braun, leader of the Free Democrats in Berlin, said yesterday's judgment was 'a crime against women, and against German unity'. Demonstrations were held in Hamburg, Leipzig, and elsewhere.