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Distance or Control: Abortion and counselling in Germany
By Clare Murphy


What follows is the text of a paper given at a conference organised by Pro-Choice Forum called 'Issues in Pregnancy Counselling: What do Women Need and Want?' The conference was held at Ruskin College, Oxford in May 1997. It's aim was to give students, academics, service providers and others interested in ensuring pregnancy services meet women's needs, the opportunity for a critical discussion of the provision of counselling as part of these services.

In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall in October of 1989, the abortion question was under pretty much constant debate in Germany. Two fundamentally different abortion laws had existed in East and West. In the former GDR, the East, every woman had the right to free abortion on demand within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In the FRG, the West, in accordance with the 1976 Act, abortion was deemed unlawful, in the sense of being anti-constitutional, but was nevertheless accessible to women who could present adequate indications approved by both a counsellor and a doctor, and who had undergone sufficient sessions of counselling, as determined by the counsellor in question. This counselling was to encourage the continuation of the pregnancy. The debate over a new abortion law which followed reunification was in no real sense of the word a debate; there was never a notion of introducing free abortion on demand into the West. The final version of Paragraph 218 as it appeared in 1996 has meant nothing but loss for the women of the former East and very marginal gain for the women in the West.

Now abortion in Germany is not considered 'lawful', but goes unpunished provided that the woman has undergone counselling at least three days before the operation The directive element of counselling has been removed as has the necessity to present an indication, and the reasons for these changes will be examined later. The current law is a law which claims to combine the protection of unborn life with the right of the woman to make choices about her life, however this does seem to be an impossible combination.

The discussion around the attitude of the German state towards women seeking abortion tends to ask the question-'Distance or Tolerance'? What is perhaps a more accurate description is control. It's worth making the point, and not just in Germany, that reform in abortion law-making it legally accessible to women-is not necessarily the product of a belief in women's rights, but can be a means of bringing the practice of abortion back under state control. The number of illegal abortions otherwise taking place clearly damages state authority. The obligatory counselling aspect of German abortion law is central to control.

Abortion counselling is not a private discussion between two individuals but a process that is regulated and influenced by external perceptions of abortion as a problem. To deal with this problem two functions of counselling are identified, first to give women 'space and distance', above all from her immediate social surroundings, to discuss her situation and second as an 'information giving service'.

I want to look first at this 'space and distance' idea and where it comes from. It does seem to be the case nowadays that providing women with the opportunity to discuss their situation away from everyday pressures is widely regarded as a good thing. Is it? What are the assumptions behind this?

The decision or the desire to terminate a pregnancy is believed to be 'the result of an inner psychological conflict of the pregnant woman. Counselling should uncover the elements of this conflict and make them easier for the woman to understand, so that she is in the position to make a reasoned and rational decision'(1). What is being put forward here is that the personal decision of a woman who has not undergone counselling is not a reasonable or rational decision, she is unable to understand what is going on within her own head and needs the assistance of someone who is more informed.

With this as a starting point it becomes very hard to see how counselling can claim to be non-directive and done on the woman's terms, given the reason that she is there in the first place is because her own ability to make a decision is believed to be inadequate.

Counsellors are there to structure the decision-making process of the woman in a way that is deemed to be acceptable and correct. So it takes place not on the woman's terms but on the terms of those in authority. Even if the counsellor, in the course of the session, personally feels that the woman's decision to terminate is 'rational and reasonable' at no stage is the counsellor allowed to convey, directly or indirectly, any signal of support for a decision to terminate. All sessions must be minuted and annual inspections are carried out on counselling centres; a centre found to be lax in its adherence to the counselling codes will lose its status as state approved. All abortion counselling must take place in state-approved centres.

The removal of the necessity to present an indication has been mentioned. This was not done on the grounds that a woman's decision to terminate a pregnancy is her prerogative, but instead because it was believed to interfere with the successful influence of counselling 'in favour of the child'. It was thought that the pressure the woman felt to prove to the counsellor the serious difficulties she would encounter if the pregnancy were carried to term, (the pressure to justify her wish for an abortion), meant that she might feel unable to really express what she thought. To express doubt, contradictory feelings or the desire for a child might be dangerous because it might lead to a situation where the counsellor doubted the sincerity of her request for an abortion and refused to give her the necessary document so that she could procure one.

Access to any slight misgivings is of course essential if the counsellor is to successfully construct and present the woman with a clear conflict that could work 'in favour of the child'. The fact that counselling in itself may create a conflict when the woman was in no doubt about termination is recognised and celebrated. Indeed the woman who has absolutely no doubts is perceived to be abnormal and deluded.

Counselling also aims to provide a positive counter-effect to the supposed negative influence of the woman's immediate social surroundings. The belief in this negative influence is enshrined in law in Germany-namely 'Protection from the familiar environment', whereby the act of encouraging a woman to have an abortion is an offence which carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment. This is, above all, aimed at husbands, boyfriends and employers. It is a law which is virtually impossible to exercise, but the theory behind it is important and one which, perhaps ironically, is very much in keeping with the climate of some feminist debate at the moment. The fragmentation of the Women's Movement seems to have culminated in feminist debate moving away from wider social and economic issues and onto the narrow plane of male oppression of women within personal relationships. Approached from this angle it can now be argued that easier access to abortion means that men can pressurise women into sex without fear of the consequences, because if need be, they can also pressurise women into having an abortion, contrary to the woman's own desires. On these terms counselling is now not just warmly welcomed but even demanded as a means of providing women with distance from oppressive influences, thus enabling her to reach her own decision.

So the concept 'distance and space' is ultimately about bringing women away from the uncontrollable and into the controllable sphere. I'd like now to take a closer look at the second function of counselling, that of information giving.

Information is regarded rightly as something that is empowering. It is better to make an informed decision than one made in ignorance. However information is subject to both selection and interpretation, and again information is not given on the woman's terms i.e. what she wants to know-rather, information is what it is felt she needs to know.

Informing the woman of all possible financial support and grants, childcare facilities which would be available if she were to have the child is an aspect of counselling. This is all part of helping the woman to make a 'responsible choice' and one might argue that this is no bad thing.

However this information is given with the intention of sharpening the conflict, and of drawing a dividing line between a 'responsible choice' and what is referred to as an 'egotistical choice'. It is given to stress the even greater unacceptability of abortion requested by a woman who could afford financially to have the child.

This idea of the 'egotistical choice' is, ironically, strengthened by those in favour of easier access to abortion. The lack of state-funded childcare, kindergarten places, the fact that school for young children in Germany finishes so early, combined with women's general economic disadvantage are the most important points of the argument favouring easier access.

This is a problematic argument. I would be the first to say that good state-funded childcare, improvements in women's financial status are a must. However they should not be used as the central argument in the abortion debate. It makes the assumption that the reason that women do not want to have babies is because they cannot afford to support them, and it ignores the fact that a woman may feel that she personally, at that moment in her life she is not prepared to have a child, regardless of her financial considerations.

One only has to look at the example of the woman in England last summer who aborted one of a set of twins to see how problematic this line of attack can be. Initially, when it was believed that she had done this on the grounds of financial hardship, there was a measure of support for her decision. However when it transpired that she was in fact a middle class career woman with money behind her, sympathy quickly turned to criticism.

The last aspect I would like to look at in reference to information and counselling is the psychological sequelae of abortion that women have to know about. In the Summer of 1996 the Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Johannes Singhammer confirmed the psychological damage that abortion causes. According to an official survey nearly 30 per cent of women who had had an abortion experienced psychological disturbance afterwards, symptoms of this including depression combined with self-reproach, anxiety about becoming sterile, sexual problems and psychosomatic disorders. Johannes Singhammer commented that it was likely that the numbers were even higher but, because 'of the continuing attitude towards abortion as a taboo subject, many women feel unable to speak openly about their feelings of guilt.'

He may have a point. There are probably many women who feel guilty after terminating their pregnancies, because that is precisely what the German abortion law has in mind. Although he describes abortion as a taboo subject this has not prevented him and his parliamentary colleagues from expressing quite openly that abortion is unjustifiable, unconstitutional and that the woman who makes this choice must be aware that there exists no state institution to legitimate her decision. Counselling is the instrument of the state to drive this point even further home. It undermines the woman who wants to make a positive decision about her life and its purpose is to produce feelings of insecurity and guilt.

(1) Prof. Dr. Erhard Kausch "Soziale Beratung Schwangerer" (1995)

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