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German court fines two doctors over abortion 'advertising'

Hui Min NEO
Supporters stand by doctors Bettina Gaber and Verena Weyer outside the Berlin district court as both vow to appeal their fines (AFP Photo/Paul Zinken)

Berlin (AFP) - A German court Friday fined two gynaecologists for offering information online about their abortion services, rekindling an emotional row over a Nazi-era law banning practitioners from advertising pregnancy terminations.

German law allows abortions but effectively discourages them through various hurdles, including the law in question, Article 219a, which dates to May 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler took power.

After an uproar over another recent case, the government early this year lifted a blanket ban on publicising abortion services.

Under the eased rules, gynaecologists, hospitals and public health services are allowed to share essential information about where women can terminate unwanted pregnancies.

However, the two gynaecologists, Bettina Gaber and Verena Weyer, still fell foul of the amended law because they "not only provided information about whether but also about how the termination of pregnancy is carried out," the Berlin court said.

"Doctors should in principle only indicate that they carry out abortions," added the court, imposing a fine of 2,000 euros ($2,250) on each gynaecologist.

On their website, the doctors said they offered "medicinal, anaesthesia-free abortion" in a "protected environment".

Both defendants voiced disappointment at the ruling and said they would mount an appeal.

They argued that the law in question flouted their freedom of occupation, freedom of opinion and freedom of information for patients.

"It's so awful, my stomach turned," said Gaber of the ruling.

- 'Criminalises doctors' -

After an uproar over another gynaelogist who was fined last year for publishing information on abortion services on her website, Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government in February eased Article 219a.

Critics, including the Greens, have argued that the law should be scrapped altogether.

Ahead of Friday's hearing, about 100 people demonstrated in front of the court, calling for the doctors' acquittal.

Joining critical voices against the ruling, Berlin's justice minister Dirk Behrendt said the court decision "shows that the revised Article 219a continues to criminalise doctors".

He added that he will push for the city-state of Berlin to file anew a demand at Germany's upper house of parliament for the article to be scrapped.

Germany, despite being a leading voice for women's rights in the 1970s, imposes tight restrictions on abortion, permitting it only under strictly regulated circumstances.

It is left out of universities' course books for student doctors and kept unavailable in swathes of the country.

A woman who wants an abortion within the first trimester is required to attend a consultation at a registered centre.

The aim of the interview is to "encourage the woman to continue the pregnancy," according to the rules, even if in the end she has the final say.

Excluding special circumstances such as a pregnancy that threatens the life of the mother, or one arising from rape, abortion is not a procedure that is reimbursable by health insurance.

In some regions, including in the predominantly Catholic state of Bavaria, it may be necessary to travel 100 kilometres (60 miles) to find a doctor who performs the procedure.

Germany records an average of 100,000 abortions for 790,000 births, about half the rate of neighbouring France.