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Abortion debates rock Germany

NCR Staff

Just when the wounds from its bitter post-reunification debate over abortion seemed finally to have healed, Germany today finds itself embroiled in two new abortion controversies.

The country’s new socialist government has said it will approve, over strong Catholic criticism, the introduction of RU-486, the so-called "abortion pill." Public exchanges on the issue have been heated, with one Catholic prelate even evoking the image of Zyklon B, the gas used by the Nazis to kill Jews.

Austria is engulfed in a similar controversy over RU-486.

Meanwhile, Germany’s bishops are set to decide later this month whether 254 church-run pregnancy counseling centers may continue issuing the legal certificate needed to obtain an abortion. The pope has asked that they stop doing so.

German law requires a woman seeking an abortion to obtain a certificate proving she has received counseling. In December 1997, John Paul declared that when Catholic counselors issue such a certificate it makes the church complicit in abortion. He asked the bishops to end the practice.

The bishops asked for more time to study the problem, though promising not to continue the system in its "current form." Many Catholics support issuing the certificates, pointing to statistics that as many as 5,000 women a year opt against abortion after visiting a Catholic center. They argue if the centers stop issuing certificates, few women will visit them, depriving the church of the chance to do counseling.

The current controversies mark the latest chapter in Germany’s decade-long struggle over abortion. Reunification left the country with, in effect, two policies: liberal access to abortion in the East, restrictive standards in the West. During the early 1990s, no cultural issue was more divisive than the question of how to harmonize the two approaches, with the conservative Christian Democrats under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a Catholic, pushing for the more restrictive West German law.

Eventually the country settled on making abortion legal within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, along with the counseling requirement.

Chancellor sees no objection

Germany’s new "Red/Green" government (a coalition of socialists and members of the environmentalist Green Party) seems poised, however, to take a more permissive turn. In December, the French co-discoverer and producer of RU-486, Edouard Sakiz, announced that he would seek permission to market his drug in Germany. New Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said in early January that he saw no objection.

Currently RU-486 is available only in China, France, Sweden and England; in those four countries, women have had more than 400,000 abortions using the pill. In the United States, despite support from President Clinton and the Food and Drug Administration, no drug company has agreed to manufacture or distribute RU-486. The nonprofit Population Council in New York holds the U.S. rights and is currently seeking a distributor.

RU-486 blocks the hormone progesterone, needed for the development of a fetus, and hence induces miscarriage. Advocates have hailed the drug as a way of making abortion available outside urban clinics. Opponents worry that the relative simplicity of taking a pill will make it easier for women to evade moral doubts. Some also warn of dangerous side-effects, though the medical community seems divided on how serious the potential hazards are.

When news of the development of RU-486 broke in the early 1980s, the Vatican was strongly critical. An editorial in L’Osservatore Romano attacked it as the "pill of Cain: the monster that cynically kills its brothers."

The German firm Hoechst AF patented RU-486 but later halted distribution. In part, the firm was concerned about rumors of a boycott of all Hoechst products by Catholic hospitals worldwide — potentially jeopardizing $30 billion in annual sales, including $6 billion in the United States. Sakiz now distributes the pill through a small French company whose name he keeps secret to protect it from reprisals.

In the Jan. 14 issue of the German magazine Bunte, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, Germany, spoke out bitterly against introducing RU-486, indirectly comparing the drug to the gas Zyklon B.

"Though all other historical circumstances are completely different," the cardinal wrote, "in view of this background it would be an unspeakable tragedy if at the end of the century the German chemical industry would for a second time manufacture an instrument of death for a legally defined group of people set aside for disposal.

"By no means does this compare women who have abortions with Nazi henchmen," Meisner wrote. "But it reminds politicians and the chemical industry in Germany of their special historical and moral responsibility on such a topic. Among other things it certainly resurrected a shadow of the German past when the Hoechst company, a successor enterprise to IG Farben [the German company that patented Zyklon B], obtained the patent to RU-486. ... If it is taboo to say so, then a German bishop must break this taboo."

With minimal risk

A spokesperson for Schröder’s Social Democrats called Meisner’s remarks "tasteless." Regina Schmidt-Zadel said that RU-486 is for many women "the method to end a pregnancy with minimal risk."

The party’s family minister, Christine Bergmann, hinted that the church should stay out of the debate. She said no one should "deny to women an alternative means of abortion."

The chair of the German bishops’ conference, Archbishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, joined Meisner in denouncing RU-486, although in less strident terms. He said that moral suffering caused by the pill would outweigh any reduction in health risk it offers.

Bergmann ruled out negotiations with the church. "I do not see what there is to discuss," she said in an interview on German radio. RU-486 is "only making available an alternative method of abortion within the framework of pregnancy-ending measures already decided."

The government has said RU-486 could become available in Germany as early as the end of February.

In Austria, the government has said it will license RU-486 in March. Catholics were quick to attack, with Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten demanding legal penalties for physicians involved in abortions. Bishop Klaus Küng of Feldkirch, a physician himself and a member of Opus Dei, proposed compulsory registration of any abortion performed in Austria.

These comments drew wide criticism, with members of Austria’s center-left political party calling for a review of the church’s concordat. In the media, some applied the label "fundis" to the bishops, a term usually invoked for Islamic fundamentalists.

Other Catholic leaders struck a different note. The bishop of Innsbruck, Alois Kothgasser — while strongly urging the "protection of unborn life" — said, "Only very little is achieved through penalties and the threat of penalties."

A spokesperson for Catholic hospitals in the Vienna archdiocese, Erich Richartz, said that if opposition to abortion is to be meaningful, the church "must at last affirm birth control."

One sideshow came in mid-December when Karl Hapsburg, a Catholic politician and son of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, said that even the guillotine is preferable as an instrument of death. His comment was greeted with some derision by Austrian journalists, who noted that Hapsburg has recently been charged with diverting money for political purposes from a charity whose proceeds are intended for children in the Third World.

Bishops will decide

On the German abortion counseling issue, a decision is expected from the full assembly of 78 bishops at the end of February. In 1997, just over 130,000 abortions were performed in Germany. (The country’s population is approximately 82 million, with some 27 million Catholics.)

Administrators of Catholic counseling centers assert that approximately 5,000 women opted not to have abortions in 1997 because of their intervention. A spokesperson for Catholic social service professionals said that 23 percent of women who visit a church counseling center choose to have their babies.

Several official lay organizations, including the powerful Central Committee of German Catholics, have asked the bishops to stay in the counseling system, while pro-life groups have expressed opposition.

The German government and the Red Cross also run counseling centers.

The German newspaper Süddeutschen Zeitung reported Jan. 25 that a working group in the bishops’ conference is proposing two options. Under one, church centers would continue issuing certificates, but they would be accompanied by a list of services the church offers to women and families, and a reminder of Catholic teaching on abortion. Sources said this would be the preferred solution, but the pope is unlikely to accept it.

The other proposal is for the centers to stop issuing certificates altogether and allow women to inform doctors themselves that they have received counseling. This plan, however, would probably require a modification of German law and is therefore considered impractical.

Annegret Laakman, spokesperson for a Catholic women’s group called "Frauenwürde" ("Women’s Dignity") that supports church participation in the certificates program, told NCR in a telephone interview that she believes the most likely outcome is that some dioceses will withdraw from the system and others will remain.

"The bishops are divided," she said. "It will be very difficult to get an agreement among all of them." Laakman cited Limburg, Mainz, Münster, Aachen and Trier as among the dioceses likely to remain in the system.

The bishop of Limburg, Franz Kamphaus, has publicly announced that he favors staying in the counseling system.

The Fulda diocese under Archbishop Johannes Dyba, by contrast, already does not participate. Laakman said that Frauenwürde is working with the local government and a group of supportive priests to open a lay-run Catholic counseling center in the diocese that would have the authority to issue the certificates. She believes the government will approve the center and hopes to raise enough money to open it this summer.

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999