Defend a woman’s right to choose

By Ella Mertens

WHETHER in Chile or Ireland, Germany or Poland – all over the world – women are protesting for their right to control their own bodies. A new generation is standing up to say that we can decide for ourselves whether or not to have a child in the event of pregnancy.

Poland shows just how successful such a campaign can be. Just under two years ago, “Ordo Iuris”, a pro-life organisation, demanded five year prison sentences for abortions, as well as the prohibition of the “morning-after pill” – even in cases of rape or danger to life for mother or child.

Poland already has the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe but the new law would have condemned thousands of Polish women, especially young women, to lose the right to stop a pregnancy within 120 hours of sexual intercourse.

Health minister Konstanty Radziwiłł first of all tried to claim that the morning-after pill was injurious to women’s health, then that it was tantamount to abortion because it would not allow the pregnancy “time to develop”. These comments were condemned by European health agencies and publicly ridiculed.

Nevertheless the right-wing populist PiS (Law and Order) government initially chose to support the Bill. However, when more than 100,000 people took to the streets to protest against the law and many women walked out of their workplaces, Radziwiłł performed a spectacular U-turn and spoke out against it during the debate – not because he spontaneously changed his mind, but to improve his chances in the upcoming election.

In Chile, too, a partial victory for the pro-choice movement last August secured the right to abortion under “three circumstances”: if the woman’s life was at risk; if the foetus suffered from a terminal condition; or if the woman was raped. The notorious dictator, General Pinochet, introduced an absolute prohibition in 1989.

The protests in Ireland have a similar background. Here women who order an abortion pill over the Internet face a 14-year prison sentence. A referendum on the liberalisation of the law introduced in 1983 will now be held in May this year. (See page xx for more details.)

Although it may seem surprising, in Germany the legal situation regarding abortions is also not particularly progressive. For example gynaecologist Kristina Hänel provided abortion information on her homepage. She was fined €6,000 for this under paragraph 219a of the Penal Code because apparently medical and legal information about abortion constitutes “advertising”.

But that’s not all. According to paragraph 218 of the Penal Code, abortion is illegal if a) a period of 12 weeks is exceeded or b) the pregnant woman does not undergo any supposedly neutral counselling. If such counselling does not take place and an abortion is still carried out, the pregnant woman or the doctor can go to jail for up to five years.

In addition, many hospitals under church management refuse to carry out abortions. While in a big city you can choose another treatment centre, in rural areas it can mean having to travel 100km to the nearest centre, i.e. out of reach for many young and poorer women.

However, things are moving. The verdict on the gynaecologist brought the debate to the Bundestag, where on 22 February three amendments to paragraph 219a were debated.

But, for three reasons, that alone is not enough. First Angela Merkel’s CDU party oppose any change, as does the pro-life far-right AfD, so the parliamentary route is blocked. Second we need to abolish paragraph 218 and fight for free and legal abortion for all who request it, if we are to ensure all women who become pregnant have a real choice.

And third we need to link up the national movements into an international campaign for a woman’s right to choose.

This article was translated from German, and originally published in Fight! Revolutionare Frauenzeitung