BONN — PRO-CHOICE west Germans realized their hope for a new, much liberalized abortion law, in large part because of tradition in former East Germany.
The Bundestag's decision early Friday to allow a woman - rather than her doctor - to decide on abortion is the first time the east German tradition has been adopted in the west.
The decision might never have taken place in west Germany were it not for the fall of the Berlin Wall. Under the terms of reunification, the new Bundestag had to come up with a uniform abortion law for the whole country by the end of this year. Until that time, the two halves of Germany would continue to be governed by their pre-unification abortion statutes.
In east Germany, that meant a woman could decide for herself whether to have an abortion or not. However, in west Germany, under a law known as "Paragraph 218," a woman needed a doctor's approval, and abortion was allowed only in certain cases, such as rape and medical threat to the mother. An abortion judged unjustified could bring a jail term of up to three years for a doctor and one year for the patient.
Last year, there were 32 abortions for every 100 births in the east, and only 9 for every 100 births in the west, although thousands of women travel to the Netherlands for abortions.
In a debate reminiscent of last year's vote for Berlin as the new German capital, more than 100 lawmakers filled the tiny Bundestag on the Rhine with 14 hours of passionate speeches.
As in the Berlin decision, lawmakers were freed from party obligations and allowed to vote their own conscience. Also in a break from tradition, women parliamentarians - who make up about 25 percent of the Bundestag - dominated the debate.
The vote was a defeat for German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democrats, who proposed a law similar to Paragraph 218. Many of the members of his governing coalition swung over to the law which was finally adopted, 355-283 with 16 abstentions according to the German newspaper Die Welt.
THE new law, a compromise worked out between the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats, allows an abortion only in the first trimester and only after the woman has undergone mandatory counseling. She no longer faces imprisonment for an abortion, need not meet any criteria for abortion set by a doctor, and is free to make her own decision.
This last point was the one most often stressed by supporters of the new law, who argued that Paragraph 218 does not trust women to act responsibly. The woman, not her doctor, is the best judge of her own circumstances, they emphasized.
"Let's finally stop with the belittling, injuring, and ignoring of women's dignity, responsibility, and decision-making capability," said Bundestag President Rita Sussmuth, who has come under fierce criticism from her fellow Christian Democrats, including Chancellor Kohl, for deserting the party on the abortion issue.
Opponents of the new law were supported by the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, which rang bells and held services in a prayerful effort to prevent the law from passing. Although polls showed that 76 percent of all Germans favor the new abortion law, opponents in Thursday's debate said lawmakers must not be tempted by popular "neutralizing of values," as Bundestag representative Ursula Mannle put it.
Meanwhile, the state of Bavaria, which is largely Catholic, says the rule is unconstitutional because it does not protect life. It plans to take the case to the constitutional court. Bavaria's action has the backing of the Roman Catholic Church and the Christian Social Union, the CDU's sister party in Bavaria.
One issue on which all parties agreed was that Germany lacks the social programs that would encourage a woman to continue a pregnancy. In the west, day care is almost non-existent and kindergartens are scarce. The new law guarantees kindergarten places for all children by 1996, and includes additional financial support for newborns.