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Fighting for Abortion Rights: Lessons from Berlin in the 1970s

In recent decades, the feminist movement has gone through a process of NGO-ization. Supporters no longer demonstrate and smash windows — now they just click to send money.

Nathaniel Flakin

September 9, 2021
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Photo: Klaus Rose

As a Berliner from Texas, I cringe whenever my home state makes the news here. But the headlines from last week were bad even by Texan standards: it has now almost completely outlawed abortion. Senate Bill 8 bans abortions after six weeks — a clear violation of the US. constitution as it was interpreted by the Supreme Court in 1973. Yet the current Supreme Court has allowed the law to go into effect, since the ban is to be enforced by private bounty hunters who will receive $10,000 for denouncing anyone who “aids or abets” the termination of a pregnancy.

Everyone I know in Texas — and across the U.S. — is outraged. And yet, I have not seen any big protests against the law. Instead, my social media feeds and podcasts are full of appeals to donate money to Planned Parenthood and other NGOs that fight for abortion rights,

One thing I don’t understand, though: Planned Parenthood in Texas has announced they have stopped offering abortions because of this clearly unconstitutional law. They plan to challenge the law in court. But if U.S. history teaches us anything, it is that no one has ever won their civil rights in court. Rosa Parks did not stay at the back of the bus and file a lawsuit. Oppression ends when people disobey unjust laws.

This got me thinking about the movement for abortion rights in Berlin. Back in the 1970s, abortion was illegal in West Germany. One of the central campaigns of the second-wave feminist movement was to abolish the infamous Paragraph 218 of the criminal code. In mid-1971, 374 feminists went on the cover of Stern magazine to declare “Wir haben abgetrieben!” (We’ve had abortions!)

The magazine cover was not enough, so three years later, feminists decided to escalate. Fourteen doctors announced that they were going to conduct an illegal abortion in public. They demanded an end to the hypocrisy: Up to 3,000 illegal abortions were taking place every day across West Germany.

On March 9, 1974, they invited cameras from the public TV news program Panorama to film an abortion. It took place at the Women’s Center in Kreuzberg, which had opened its doors in 1973 in the ground floor of an apartment building at Hornstraße 2. (Today, that Gründerzeit building looks majestic — but 50 years ago, even the nice part of Kreuzberg was run down and storefronts were cheap.)

Panorama was set to air the footage two days later. Just an hour before airtime, management cancelled the segment. The Catholic Church had pressed charges. In protest, the editors of Panorama broadcast a live shot of their empty studio for 45 minutes. In the following days, women occupied different public TV stations demanding the show be screened.

It might be obvious, but: no one was ever charged for publicly breaking the law, neither with the magazine cover nor with the TV show. That is how civil disobedience works — prosecutors know that a trial would just inspire further protests.

That has me wondering: Why isn’t Planned Parenthood breaking the Texas law? I have nothing but respect for the doctors, nurses and other workers providing health care to pregnant people while worrying about religious fanatics and right-wing terrorists. Here, I am wondering about the highly-paid administrators of NGOs — the CEO of Planned Parenthood, for example, makes close to $1 million a year.

For a salary like that, shouldn’t they be willing to face a lawsuit or go to prison? The founders of Planned Parenthood, the pioneers of birth control in the United States, went to prison many times. What would happen if Texas courts were flooded with tens of thousands of lawsuits?

In recent decades, the feminist movement has gone through a process of NGO-ization. Supporters no longer demonstrate and smash windows — now they just click to send money. As a result, the movement is no longer made up of masses of working-class women fighting for their rights. Now it’s all highly paid lawyers and lobbyists, and they tend to be conservative by nature.

NGO are like bureaucracies of the social movement,  and bureaucrats always “professionalize” protests while pacifying the rank-and-file.

This “professionalism” is clearly not working, as the right to bodily self-determination is slowly being eroded. Abortion rights in the U.S. were not granted by an enlightened Supreme Court. It was a mass movement in the 1970s that forced the court to grant Roe vs. Wade. That is what we will need to defend abortion rights today.

To close, readers in Berlin might be thinking: this is just another example of U.S. barbarism! So let me quote from the current version of Paragraph 218 of Germany’s criminal code:

“Whoever terminates a pregnancy incurs a penalty of imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or a fine.”

That’s right: in the year 2021, abortion is still technically prohibited in Germany. There is a loophole, however: Paragraph 218a decriminalises the procedure under certain conditions, such as if the pregnancy is still in the first trimester. Is this just a legal distinction without a difference? No, not at all. Since abortion is illegal, it is not covered by insurance, and it is not taught in medical schools.

In addition, Paragraph 219 requires that a person seeking to terminate a pregnancy go to an obligatory counselling “that serves to protect the unborn life.” In many places in Germany, the only place to get such counselling is from church-run institutions. Paragraph 219a bans “advertising abortion”. Until 2019, this meant that gynaecologists were fined thousands of euros if they wrote on their website that they offer abortions.

Germany needs a mass movement to defend abortion rights as well, almost as much as Texas does.

Nathaniel Flakin is working on an anticapitalist Berlin guide book, which will be published next Spring by Pluto Press. This article is partially adapted from Chapter 9.6.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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