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Germany steps up crackdown on anti-abortion protests

Helen Whittle
January 24, 2024

As the abortion debate heats up in Germany, the government is tightening its grip on "pro-life" protests. Reproductive rights advocates say the anti-abortion movement in Europe is influenced by US money and tactics.

February 25, 2020, Munich, Bavaria, Germany: A group of Christian fundamentalists headed by Wolfgang Hering protested the Profamila family planning offices
Christian groups in Munich have long been protesting outside the Pro Familia office thereImage: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA/picture alliance

Family Minister Lisa Paus (Green Party) announced on January 24 a draft law to prevent demonstrators from approaching or harassing visitors within a 100-meter (320 ft) radius of abortion clinics and family planning centers. Posters or flyers aimed at intimidating women will also be banned. Anyone violating the ban could be punished with a fine of up to €5,000 ($5,445).

Paus said that it was important that women were able to receive good advice in such difficult situations without being confronted with "hatred and agitation." "That's why we are striking a balance between freedom of expression and the right of assembly," Paus told German public broadcaster ZDF.

Protests outside of abortion clinics and family planning centers are common in the United States, where abortion is a highly partisan and dominant political issue. Planned Parenthood, which provides reproductive health care and advice at centers throughout the US, even has guidelines on its website for patients on how to deal with protesters gathered outside of its centers.

Although less widespread and less well-publicized than those in the US, anti-abortion protests outside counseling centers and abortion clinics are not a new phenomenon in Germany.

"We didn't see this phenomenon in Germany before, but it has increased in recent years," said Family Minister Paus.

Lisa Paus speaking at the pulpit in the Bundestag
Family Minister Lisa Paus wants to prevent anti-abortion activists from protesting outside of abortion clinics and counseling centersImage: Carsten Koall/dpa/picture alliance

'Pro-life' protests in Germany

In the early afternoon on a gray and windy Friday in February, a dozen protesters from EuroProLife slowly began to appear opposite the Pro Familia family planning advice and counseling center in Frankfurt's Westend. 

Clutching hymn sheets and rosaries, they chanted the Hail Mary prayer. Some held placards bearing images of smiling babies or a tiny clenched fist with the slogans "Unborn Lives Matter" and "Abortion Is Not a Solution." 

The demonstration was held by 40 Days for Life, a movement that originated in the US state of Texas in 2004. It calls on protesters to hold so-called vigils outside of abortion facilities for 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday to coincide with Lent.

The protesters say they have been unfairly portrayed by the press, and that their words have been misreported and turned against them. They simply want to pray in peace, they say. 

Protesters in Frankfurt praying
The anti-abortion protesters in Frankfurt say they want to pray and refuse to talk to the mediaImage: Helen Whittle/DW

Claudia Hohmann has been the director of the Pro Familia Center in Frankfurt for nine years. She remembers the day in 2017 when protesters first appeared on the normally quiet square close to the entrance of the city's botanical gardens. 

"It was a real shock," Hohmann says. "I'm sure there are women who aren't so affected by it, but there are individuals who carry that [experience] with them into counseling and are then less open to talking. The situation outside simply fuels feelings of shame and guilt."

Under Section 218 of the German Criminal Code, abortion is illegal, but it is possible up to 12 weeks after conception only if a counseling certificate is obtained at least three days before the procedure. Without this certificate, any woman who has an abortion is liable to prosecution, as is the doctor who performs the procedure.

Pro Familia has branches in cities throughout Germany and is certified to issue the required certificates. The office in Frankfurt offers counseling to around 1,700 pregnant people each year.

Hohmann says that protests not only have a psychological impact on those visiting the center — where the singing and prayers by protesters can be heard inside the building — but people are also becoming too intimidated to seek counseling. 

Claudia Hohmann sitting in her office
Claudia Hohmann has been the director of the Pro Familia center in Frankfurt for nine yearsImage: Helen Whittle/DW

"Freedom of speech is all well and good," Hohmann told DW. "Just not here. It's very targeted and that's what is so perfidious about it."

The activists outside the counseling center call the protests "vigils" and, Hohmann says, are careful to portray themselves as peaceful demonstrators simply expressing an opinion.

"Of course, we're glad that they don't shout at us or throw things at us, but that's not the point. It's a friendliness behind which lies a lot of aggression towards people," Hohmann says.

Fewer abortion clinics

According to Germany's Statistical Office, around 100,000 abortions are performed each year in the country, down from 130,899 in 1996. In some parts of Germany, it can be difficult for those seeking an abortion to find a clinic — in some cities there are none.

Medical schools do not always teach the procedure, and fewer and fewer graduates want to work in this area of healthcare. At the same time, the doctors who do provide the service are often older and are going into retirement. Between 2003 and 2020, the number of clinics offering abortion services fell 50% to only 1,109.

Why are abortions still illegal in Germany?

Dutch gynecologist Gabie Raven became troubled by the increasing numbers of Germans crossing the border to get an abortion at her clinics in the Netherlands and decided to open a clinic in the western German city of Dortmund in November 2022.

She was immediately targeted by anti-abortion protesters, who called her a "baby murderer." Her address and telephone number were quickly published on anti-abortion websites. 

"There's a Bible Belt here, just like in Holland, and they say they have no problems with abortion — but we all know that's not true. It was really hard for us to find premises to lease, I think, because we wanted to perform abortions," Raven says. 

Links to groups in the US

Ulli Jentsch is a journalist who works at the Berlin-based Anti-Fascist Press Archive and Education Center (apabiz) and has been researching the extreme right, Christian fundamentalism and the "pro-life" movement in Germany for more than 20 years. He says that the anti-abortion movement in the US has been a role model for activists in Germany and Europe since at least the 1990s. 

"Apart from trying to copy US-style tactics, there are also the contacts," Jentsch told DW. He points to Terrisa Bukovinac, a prominent US anti-abortion activist who was a guest speaker at the annual "March for Life" anti-abortion demo in Berlin in September 2022. 

During her speech, Bukovinac, a self-declared atheist and left-leaning progressive, called abortion a "global genocide."

Pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion demonstrators shouting at each other outside the US Supreme Court in May 2022
Unlike the US, Germany rarely sees anti-abortion and abortion-rights campaigners standing off outside abortion clinicsImage: Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS

According to Jentsch, right-wing conservative think tanks in the US are also pouring money — and expertise — into expanding their own ideologically aligned organizations in Europe and around the world.

The aim is to import the successful US "litigation model," where with a lot of legal know-how and financial backing, contentious cases are brought before the courts in the hope of setting a legal precedent far more restrictive than constitutionally intended. 

"They are very active and well funded, and this work wouldn't be possible without funding from the US," Jentsch says. "They use the money to support certain cases, for example at the European Court of Human Rights, and they've also supported cases pertaining to the 'vigils'. They are in Strasbourg [the seat of the European Parliament], in Brussels [where the EU is headquartered], sitting at the interface where policymaking takes place, and that is their great strength."

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is a conservative Christian legal advocacy group founded in the US in 1993. Lawyers from ADF's international arm supported the organizer of the "40 Days for Life" protest group, Pavica Vojnovic, in her case against the municipal government in the German city of Pforzheim after it banned protesters from gathering outside of the Pro Familia center there. Vojnovic launched a legal challenge against the ban and eventually won her case at the Administrative Court in Mannheim in August 2022.

When the protests first started outside of Pro Familia in Frankfurt in 2017, the Interior Ministry in the state of Hesse introduced guidelines ordering protesters to gather out of sight and earshot of the counseling and advice center. For one year, the protesters moved to the main road about 100 meters away. 

'Pro-life' protest banner reading "Abtreibung? Nein Danke!" ("Abortion? No thanks!")
'Pro-life' protesters in Germany are stepping up their fight against abortionsImage: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA/picture alliance

Anti-abortion group Euro Pro-Life filed a legal challenge to the order, arguing that the German constitution guarantees the right to public assembly, freedom of speech and religion. The order was overturned in court in March 2022 on the basis that it represented an "unjustified encroachment on the fundamental right to freedom of assembly" and the protesters returned to the square directly in front of the center. 

Government action welcomed

In response to the German government's announcement to crack down on "pro-life" protests, Pro Familia told DW that it welcomed the government's initiative to prevent the "haunting and threatening atmosphere" created by demonstrators outside of clinics and to introduce fines. It said that protesters gathering outside of family planning centers violate the personal rights of its clients:

"This is possible because courts value the right to demonstrate more highly than the right to visit a counseling center undisturbed and without psychological pressure. What is missing is a uniform legal approach against this siege."

Pro Familia's Claudia Hohmann sees the protests as part of a broader conservative backlash against equality, reproductive rights and the freedom to live as one chooses.

"They won't break us or intimidate us, of course not, but it's damaging to our counseling service," she says.

This article was originally published in March 2023. It was updated and republished to reflect political developments in January 2024.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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