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German MPs end deadlock on abortion law

After years of arguments, the German parliament yesterday finally gave its assent to a new abortion law.

Few were thrilled with the result but there was relief that a compromise had at last been reached. The arguments have gone round in ever-diminishing circles. As one justice ministry official noted: "This discussion hasn't really moved in 20 years."

There was an overwhelming majority in favour of the law - 486 in favour, 145 against. Among the opponents were Claudia Nolte, minister for women and families, who argued that the new law does not provide enough protection for the unborn child.

The new law became necessary because of the different rules in West and East Germany. In former East Germany, abortion was available on demand. In former West Germany, a woman had to be able to show good reasons for seeking an abortion. If she failed to do so, then she could be prosecuted.

The new ruling is partly a mish-mash of the two. The decision on whether to have an abortion (up to 12 weeks) is the woman's own; but an advice session remains compulsory.

Following a familiar pattern in German politics, long legal procedures helped to delay a solution. After German unification in 1990 it was agreed that there should be a new abortion law within two years. But opponents of the new law, passed in 1992, appealed to the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe - which took a year to decide that the proposed law was very nearly acceptable, but not quite.

The court's own judgment - apparently reflecting the individual judges personal views - itself appeared to contain contradictions. Thus, for example, the compulsory advice session should, on the one hand, be "open- ended" but must also have as its goal "the protection of the unborn child".

The court also ruled that abortion, without an appropriate advice session, was a misdemeanour, but not a punishable crime. In practice this fine distinction means a non-legalabortion cannot be paid for by Germany's national health insurance scheme.

Paragraph 218, the section of the criminal code that deals with abortion, has a long and complicated history. In 1871, the first 218 said that an abortion was punishable with five years' jail. In 1926, this was modified: abortion became legal, if the mother's life was in danger. In 1974, after a nationwide campaign, parliament approved a law which was not dissimilar to the one passed yesterday.

Opponents appealed to the constitutional court, which ruled against the parliament. Twenty years later, the judges' latest version is, in effect, that the politicians got it right and the judges got it wrong in 1974.