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Expert Panel Calls on Germany to Legalize Abortion in First 12 Weeks

A government-appointed commission in Germany recommended on Monday that lawmakers legalize abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy, a move that could push the country into a long-avoided debate on an issue that for decades remained in a legal gray zone.

Outside of exceptions for medical reasons or because of rape, abortions in Germany are technically illegal. But, in practice, they are broadly permitted in the first 12 weeks if a woman has received mandatory counseling and then waits at least three days to terminate the pregnancy.

Abortion rights activists say Germany has grown increasingly out of sync with the rest of Europe, where several countries have recently moved to loosen restrictions on abortion or to bolster laws protecting access to the procedure — especially after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022.

Last month, legislators in France voted to explicitly enshrine access to abortion in the Constitution, making their country the first in the world to do so.

In Poland, where a previous conservative government enacted a near-total ban on abortion, politicians are moving forward with draft legislation to loosen some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws.

Last year, Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz followed through on one of the agenda items set out by his governing coalition by setting up a commission of ethicists, doctors, psychiatrists and other experts to issue recommendations on abortion, egg donations and surrogacy.

But a year on, his three-way coalition — Mr. Scholz’s Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats — is under growing strain because of internal disputes on issues ranging from nuclear power to climate policy.

While there are some anti-abortion activists in Germany who want to ban the procedure entirely, most conservatives and the Roman Catholic Church are in favor of the status quo — keeping abortion technically illegal, but tolerated, even though they oppose it.

“We consider it wrong to relativize the fundamental dignity of every human being, including the unborn child, and to relativize, restrict or downgrade the associated fundamental right to life,” Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, who is also the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, told journalists over the weekend.

The government appears reluctant to open a new societal debate by immediately proposing a law following the commission’s recommendations.

“What we can’t have are debates that set society on fire or even divide it,” Marco Buschmann, Germany’s justice minister, said at a news conference announcing the commission’s findings. He pointed to the intensity of debate in Poland and the United States as a reason for proceeding with caution.

Germany’s largest opposition party, the conservative Christian Democrats, have warned they would challenge any attempts at changing the status quo.

Only six countries in Europe retain restrictive abortion laws, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, an international group that advocates for abortion access. Adriana Lamačkova, the group’s associate director for Europe, said that Germany remains an outlier in a broader trend toward expanding access to abortion.

“The legislative trend in Europe is crystal clear,” she said. “What Germany does, and seems to be the only country in Europe to do, is regulate abortion in the penal code in a way that considers all abortions unlawful.”

For decades, Germany tried to evade contentious debate through a societal understanding in which abortion was tolerated but not decriminalized.

Although East Germany’s communist regime passed one of the most progressive abortion laws in Europe in 1972, legalizing it until the 12th week, an attempt to enact a similar law in West Germany two years later was overturned as unconstitutional by the country’s supreme court, on the grounds that it deprived the unborn of the right to life, and violated the protection of human life guaranteed in the constitution.

But in the years that followed, West Germany broadly adopted a practice in which abortions were technically illegal but could be given, unpunished, with a doctor’s approval.

After German reunification, an attempt to legalize abortion was again overturned by the supreme court in 1993. But it was allowed with counseling and a three-day wait period. The court said the mandatory counseling was a state obligation to try to “encourage” a woman to continue the pregnancy.

It was only in 2022 that Germany overturned a Nazi-era law that banned doctors from disseminating information about abortion services.

On Monday, the panel of experts commissioned by the government urged the country to enshrine abortion access into law.

“Legislators should take action here and make abortion legal and unpunishable,” Liane Wörner, a spokeswoman for the commission, said at a news conference.

The commission said that legislators could also decriminalize second-trimester abortions, but it did not issue any specific recommendation. Abortions from the 22nd week onward should remain “fundamentally illegal,” but “do not necessarily have to be punishable,” the commission said.

But the panel argued that the current system in which early abortions were allowed but technically illegal was “untenable,” according to Ms. Wörner, the commission spokeswoman, who is a law professor at the University of Konstanz.

“The right to life does not have the same weight before birth as it does afterward,” she said at the news conference. “If the right to life were equal, conflicts between life and life could not be resolved. And abortion would be illegal even in situations in which the continuation of the pregnancy endangers the life of the pregnant woman.”

But it remains unlikely that Mr. Scholz’s government will propose a new law to legalize abortions, out of fear that it could stoke fresh tensions with conservative lawmakers.

The 30-year compromise in the country “is not satisfactory for many, but it has created social peace on this issue,” said Alexander Dobrindt, the parliamentary leader for the Christian Social Union.

At the news conference on Monday presenting the panel’s findings, Karl Lauterbach, Germany’s health minister, suggested that the issue should be discussed first in Parliament before the government formulates any draft proposal.

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