Abortion has been available throughout Germany since the 1970s but the number of doctors carrying out the procedure is now in decline. Jessica Bateman meets students and young doctors who want to fill the gap.
The woman at the family planning clinic looked at Teresa Bauer and her friend sternly. “And what are you studying?” she asked the friend, who had just found out she was pregnant, and wanted an abortion.
“Cultural studies,” she replied.
“Ahhh, so you’re living a colourful lifestyle?” came the woman’s retort.
Bauer sat still, hiding her rage.
Stressed-out by the discovery of her accidental pregnancy, Bauer’s friend had asked her to book the appointments needed to arrange an abortion.
It wasn’t just a case of calling her friend’s GP to arrange a time for her to request a termination.
First she needed to arrange a counselling appointment, which is designed to “protect unborn life”, as German law puts it, and discourage a woman from going ahead with the procedure. Some of the clinics providing the service are run by churches – Bauer took care to avoid them, fearing that they would be judgemental.
Then she needed to hunt down a doctor who could prescribe pills for an early medical abortion. It became legal last year for doctors to publicise the fact that they provide abortions but they cannot indicate what kinds of service they provide, so Bauer had to call medical practices one by one.
“Berlin is a liberal city, so I thought it would be easier than it was,” she says.
“Even when we went to get the pill, the doctor’s assistant kept asking, ‘Are you really sure?’ Seeing what my friend had to go through, and how she was treated, made me so angry that I decided to do something about it.”
Bauer was a third-year medical student at the time, so a few days later she emailed Medical Students for Choice Berlin, run by students at her university, telling them she wanted to start volunteering. She now works with them, campaigning for improved training on abortion for medical students, and raising awareness of the obstacles that [women] seeking an abortion may face.
Although Germany is widely perceived as a liberal country, its reproductive laws are surprisingly restrictive. Abortion isn’t actually legal – it’s just unpunished up to 12 weeks from conception, providing the woman has undergone the counselling session, followed by a waiting period of three days.
For this reason abortion hasn’t been taught at medical schools, and there is a shortage of doctors performing the procedure as a result.
In some parts of Germany women have to travel long distances to reach a clinic where abortions are carried out. In 2018 more than 1,000 crossed into the Netherlands, where the process is simpler and the time limit is 22 weeks. Some doctors also commute from Belgium and the Netherlands to carry out abortions in northern German cities such as Bremen and Münster.
Medical Students for Choice Berlin is trying to address the difficulties faced by women seeking an abortion by holding papaya workshops, where the procedure is carried out on the tropical fruit. Its size makes a handy stand-in for a human uterus, and its seeds are vacuumed out to demonstrate how the foetus may be removed. The idea is to get students in touch with the topic, and to encourage them to pursue specialist training after finishing their undergraduate course.
The group was founded in 2015 by Alicia Baier, who says she only found out about the difficulties faced by women seeking an abortion by chance, at a conference during her fourth year of medical studies.
“It’s a taboo subject and no-one talks about it, so most people don’t know about the access problems until they actually need to get an abortion themselves,” she says.
She then discovered that most doctors performing abortions in Germany are in their 60s and 70s and are due to retire soon. “They’re the generation that experienced the past fights for women’s rights,” she says. “They became politicised. But the younger generations never learnt how to do it.”
Baier got in touch with a US group called Medical Students for Choice, which explained that papayas can be used in demonstrations. “They even posted the tools for us to use,” she adds. A lecturer then connected her with some gynaecologists who could host the workshops. “They said to me, ‘We’ve been waiting so long for students like you!’”