I was stunned to discover that abortions, strictly speaking, are still not legal in Germany.
« When I was 30, in 2011, I had an abortion. I was living in Berlin, a city known, since the fall of the Wall, for championing freedom. Or at least it was until attention turned to my womb. Born in France in the 1980s, and brought up on the internet, the Erasmus European studies programme and love without borders, I was under the happy illusion that everything relating to women’s bodies – from abortion to assisted reproduction – was covered by rights secured after long, hard struggles. Brexit effect forces women to go to Netherlands for abortions.
I blithely assumed that the milestones on the road to liberating French women – the May 1968 uprising, the 1971 “Manifesto of the 343” signed by women admitting to having had an abortion, Simone Veil, the health minister who legalised abortion, and the first test-tube babies – were all sufficiently European to be taken for granted, whatever the language.
I was stunned to discover that ever since the Third Reich, Germany has been very concerned about the fate of its foetuses. Abortions, strictly speaking, are still not legal. Under paragraph 219a of the penal code, abortion is no longer a criminal offence, but gynaecologists who publish details of their methods may be prosecuted. German courts treat any form of information on abortion as “illegal publicity”.
Fortunately no one assaulted me with knitting needles, nor was I thrown into prison. But I was subjected to a bureaucratic obstacle course. I was quizzed by medics and social workers, then made to wait for a long time; I was issued with an official permit, which was duly rubber-stamped, and then made to wait again. Finally, I was given the details of a “certified” doctor.
The experience led to my rebirth as a feminist. Somewhere along the way I began to wonder how – in the 21st century and after more than 60 years of European integration – legislation on women’s bodies could be so different from one European Union member state to the next.
As a journalist I’d focused my work for many years on women, from Warsaw to Nicosia, and their desire (or not) to have children. Having a remarkable range of choices and almost complete freedom seemed emblematic of women of my generation. I had observed eastern Europe’s absurd patchwork of reproductive rights and the geographical manoeuvres it entailed. I’d talked to women in Poland who had travelled to Germany to abort, Germans over 40 going to Greece for one last try at in vitro fertilisation, down-at-heel Ukrainians acting as surrogate mothers for same-sex couples in the west, and Czech donors selling their egg cells to their less fertile sisters in France.
I had investigated abortion tourism, IVF trips and huge legal discrepancies, rooted in religious, moral or family values. Poland, for instance, has a ban on abortion, but is much the most liberal country for assisted reproductive technology: in the field of frozen embryo implants almost anything is possible, with state funding to boot.
In what is supposedly a union, I saw women subjected to frontiers, national restrictions, and blame-laden or increasingly retrograde language. Did the passport-free Schengen area not apply to our wombs? Despite having built a single market, a single currency, shared institutions and a common capital, Europe offered no universal rule for women’s bodies.
Friends in Paris travelled to Brussels to have their eggs frozen. Others, single or gay, had to make several trips to Spain. One woman I know had to have an abortion in the Netherlands because she was over the 12-week German limit. Surely for gender equality to have any real meaning it must start with that?
It has often crossed my mind that if men had to abort, special drive-thru clinics and morning-after-pill vending machines would have sprung up all over our cities. There would be legal provision for all comers, no one forced to undergo abortion at sea in order to escape national restrictions, no court battles. It would all be above-board and freely accessible, with the benefit of EU-wide health insurance. How can the EU’s 28 member states agree on edible snails or shower heads, yet remain silent on the reproductive rights of half the population of the continent? Every year Europe issues hundreds of directives and legislative packages, but I’ve never heard of any plans to harmonise EU legislation on abortion.This is Europe: stay close with the Guardian’s email updatesRead more
Now that I have a little girl I dream of European integration advancing in leaps and bounds, rather than stumbling. I wish the EU would take risks and be a pioneer for women’s rights. I refuse to applaud the fact that the gender pay gap is “only” 16.2%, that parental leave for both parents has been extended by 10 days, that violence against women has been outlawed. Much more is needed. Only societies that enjoy greater freedom can make up for increasingly tame political ideals, for a stagnant economy and for a historical miracle (the EU) in danger of turning out to be a mirage.
If nation states can pool their currency or borders, then surely reproductive rights should be child’s play. It’s time to deliver a women’s Europe, even if it requires forceps. Christine Lagarde and Ursula von der Leyen, we eagerly await your next move. »