Dr Detlef Merchel, a practising gynaecologist for 28 years in a small town in Germany near the Dutch border, didn’t expect to end up in court for doing what he sees as part of his job – giving his patients information about the medical procedures he provides. But there he was, getting convicted for “advertising abortion” — a crime in Germany.
He has been providing medical abortion pills for 13 years, ever since they were approved in Germany. He was fined €3,000 last month for sharing a statement on his website that he offers this type of abortion and the legal requirements for accessing it. He has decided not to pay the fine while he figures out what he should do to challenge it.
Until 2019, the law also restricted abortion providers from sharing any information publicly at all about the fact that they provided abortion services. Now, after an earlier legal challenge, they can say they provide abortions, but nothing more. Clearly, he said too much.
Dr Merchel’s website outlines all the different gynae procedures and services he provides. After the law changed in 2019, he added a line saying his practice provides abortions. Someone reported him. His conviction, and the prosecution of other doctors for the same offence, has once again sparked protests in Germany and renewed the debate over the country’s approach to allowing and disallowing abortion at the same time under the criminal code.
On the day he was fined, Merchel found crowds of supporters protesting against the judgment in front of the court. “I got only positive reactions,” he said. “People were saying: ‘You should go on, we will help you.’ Even older women who have been his patients for 25 years and who apparently never knew he provided abortions, supported him.
Dr Kristina Haenel was successfully prosecuted in 2017 and was fined €6,000. She has since been making her way up the German court system with the ultimate goal of having the ban struck down. She has appealed her guilty verdict and filed a complaint in the Federal Constitutional Court. She also says she has received “a tremendous amount of support and encouragement” from patients, individuals and groups campaigning for the law to be changed. But she has also received multiple threats from anti-abortion thugs. When one website compared her to Nazi henchmen in concentration camps, she took legal action against the site’s owner. The court ruled that comparing abortion to the Holocaust was not acceptable. But it also said that saying she has “blood on her hands” falls within the right to free speech.
Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court is due to make a decision on Dr Haenel’s appeal soon, ruling on whether the ban on providing abortion information is compatible with the country’s constitution. She is hopeful. During a previous appeal in 2018, the judge, in convicting her, told her she should “carry the judgment like an honorary title in the fight for a better law”.
“The abortion doctors have had to remove information from their websites, which means that now it’s mostly only anti-abortion websites that can be found on the internet,” she told CNN in an email. “I don’t think the [law] is compatible with our constitution. Women today need to be able to access detailed and factual information – I can’t withhold information from you on a subject that affects your body and your health.”
“The idea that a European country actually criminalises the provision of medically accurate information on abortion, but doesn’t effectively regulate and clamp down on misleading and inaccurate information is just nonsensical,” Leah Hoctor of the Center for Reproductive Rights said.
SOURCE: CNN, by Ivana Kottasová, CNN, 7 June 2021 ; PHOTO by Sean Gallup/Getty Images, of the most recent protest in front of the Reichstag in Berlin on 15 May 2021