As Americans tensely await a Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, the German parliament has adopted a compromise bill decriminalizing abortion in its western provinces but tightening abortion-on-demand regulations in the formerly Communist-ruled eastern states.
The issue is the most emotional since the reunification of Germany, and it splits the nation west and east, north and south, Catholic and Protestant or non-religious. Even the ruling coalition was divided, as party whips last week allowed a vote-your-conscience roll call. More battles are still to be fought in the courts and in individual states.
This is the one instance since the Berlin Wall collapsed 2 1/2 years ago in which the values and practices of old East Germany have largely prevailed over those in affluent, capitalistic West Germany. To some extent, it may ease the sense of domination by Wessis (westerners) that plagues the Ossis (easterners). But some feminists in eastern Germany are by no means appeased now that they have to accept obligatory counseling from a doctor three days before an abortion is performed.
Before the Bundestag decision on a 357-284 vote that was a setback for Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the law in western Germany was perhaps the most stringent in Europe with the exception of Ireland. Abortion was outlawed except in "emergency situations" as decreed by doctors and/or social workers. One of four criteria had to be fulfilled: if the mother's health was endangered, if the pregnancy was the result of rape, if the fetus was destined to be born deformed or if the mother's social/economic situation would make it difficult for her to raise a child. To avoid the law and a possible prison term, an estimated 7,000 German women a year went to Holland for abortions.
Under the new law, criminal penalties no longer threaten pregnant women. "We must no longer reduce, injure or disregard tTC a women's dignity, her responsibility and decision-making capability," said Bundestag leader Rita Suessmuth, usually a Kohl ally who had the support of most of the 136 women in the 662-member parliament.
Although it is risky to compare abortion practices in different countries, we think it fair to say that the old West German law was more restrictive and the old East German law less restrictive than the abortion laws that have prevailed in the United States since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which we support. It also strikes us that the new German law, though liberal by west German standards, is only slightly less restrictive than the Pennsylvania statute that now may become a Supreme Court vehicle for overturning or diluting Roe v. Wade.
But with the Catholic Church bitterly opposed to the new law and Mr. Kohl's Bavarian partners vowing to take the issue to the German high court, the issue is far from over. In that sense, the parallels with the United States are unmistakable.