Law change planned Concerns about radical anti-abortion activists are growing in Bonn

Bonn · The coaltion parties want to protect pregnant women better from anti-abortion activists who besiege counselling centres and surgeries. These so-called "pro-lifers" are becoming more and more present in the recent past. Here’s what punishment they could face and what the situation is like in the Bonn/Rhein-Sieg area.

 Anti-abortion activists demonstrate against pregnancy counselling – here in Frankfurt.

Anti-abortion activists demonstrate against pregnancy counselling – here in Frankfurt.

Foto: Arne Dedert

The anti-abortion protesters' placards feature phrases such as: "Abortion is not a solution", "Unborn Lives Matter" or "We pray for you", with a picture of a pregnant woman's hands forming a heart underneath. Such gatherings can be seen time and again outside doctors' surgeries, clinics and counselling centres that provide information about abortion - and they are on the increase, according to the federal association Pro Familia, which provides advice on abortion.

The federal government now wants to put a stop to such protests, which are labelled under the complicated term "pavement nuisance". To this end, it wants to amend the Pregnancy Conflict Act in order to better protect women who are considering an abortion. On Wednesday, the Bundestag debated the issue in a first reading. Specifically, the draft states that within a radius of 100 metres around counselling centres and surgeries, opponents of abortion would no longer be allowed to impose their opinions on pregnant women, confront them with untrue or disturbing information or put up obstacles. If they do so, they could have to pay a fine of up to 5,000 Euro.

"Running the gauntlet" for those affected

Such situations are a "gauntlet" for pregnant women, says Regine Wlassitschau, spokesperson for the Pro Familia Federal Association. Opponents of abortion usually stand in one place and do not approach those affected. However, the women have to walk past huge pictures of embryos, posters with "I want to live" written in large letters, chants and people praying loudly with the rosary. "The effect is rather aggressive, but definitely intimidating," says Wlassitschau. Pro Familia is calling for the reformed law to be introduced "as quickly as possible“.

The worldwide "40 Days for Life" initiative is apparently particularly active, laying siege to Pro Familia counselling centres for 40 days twice a year. Frankfurt, where the association has its headquarters, as well as Pforzheim, Stuttgart and, more recently, Kiel are particularly affected. There were also campaigns in Passau and Rüsselsheim, and the counselling centres in Münster and Munich were besieged once a month. In addition, defamatory letters and emails or plastic embryos are sent by post.

Bonn/Rhein-Sieg: Few incidents, but growing concerns

In Bonn and the Rhein-Sieg district, anti-abortion protesters have hardly been present so far, but the counselling centres are concerned about the increasing protests in other cities and countries. "The change in the law is very important to us, because we don't want our clients to get into such a situation in the first place," says Christiane Kaspari, head of the AWO pregnancy counselling centre in Bonn and the Rhine-Sieg district. "We want to prevent those affected from not coming to us out of fear." There have not yet been any protests outside the AWO counselling centre. As the AWO offers several counselling services at its location, it is not immediately obvious whether a woman is seeking information about abortion there. "That might protect us," says Kaspari. There are around 200 counselling sessions on the subject every year.

There have already been vigils organised by anti-abortion activists near Bonn University Hospital (UKB) - "occasionally" and "to a lesser extent", according to a spokesperson. Some doctors have also received impersonal emails from abortion opponents. The UKB offers abortions, including those that take place at a later stage for medical reasons. Legally, abortions are only exempt from punishment in the first twelve weeks if the woman receives counselling from a state-recognised centre beforehand. However, if, for example, it is foreseeable that the child will not be viable after birth, a pregnancy can still be terminated afterwards.

Topic still often taboo

One of the prerequisites for a legal abortion is that the woman seeks counselling. In Bonn, AWO, Pro Familia, Donum Vitae and Diakonie-EVA issue such counselling certificates. Pro Familia Bonn offers more than 700 counselling sessions on the subject every year. So far, there have been no protests, says director Stéphanie Berrut. Nevertheless, she believes it is important that radical opponents of abortion are put in their place. "Such protests make an already stressful decision more difficult for those affected." After all, the women themselves are often in a dilemma. An abortion affects one in twelve women once in their lifetime, which is more common than breast cancer. "Nevertheless, many don't talk about it and feel left alone. Those affected often think very carefully about who they tell at all." A small group of women also meet with Pro Familia after the abortion. "But most of them want to put the issue behind them quickly.“

Donum Vitae in Bonn received several emails from opponents of abortion a few years ago, but no longer does, says counsellor Tanja Dehnen. There have also been no protests, but she hopes that the change in the law will further remove taboos from abortion. "Many women don't even want to broach the subject with their gynaecologists, as some of them react very judgementally." A survey by the Donum Vitae federal association has shown that although there has been no physical pavement harassment in front of the advice centres so far, individual clients have been harassed in front of an abortion clinic. So-called pro-life groups have also distributed flyers and anonymous letters and interfered in discussion events.

Too few doctors offer abortions

Protest campaigns by so-called "pro-life activists" could also influence young doctors, says Stéphanie Berrut, head of Pro Familia Bonn: "They make prospective doctors more likely to decide against offering abortions." There is already a shortage of such services. There are two gynaecologists in Bonn who perform abortions. However, they have not included their services in the list of the German Medical Association. Only one doctor from Troisdorf is listed there. These few practices have to deal with all the enquiries from Bonn, the Rhein-Sieg district and the Ahr valley, says Berrut: "The situation is not yet dramatic, but it is critical." (Original text: Nina Bärschneider / Translation: Mareike Graepel)

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