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Abortion-rights activists in Germany aim to make the procedure more widely available

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This month, the European Parliament passed a resolution that says abortion is a fundamental right. Not every European country's laws match that resolution. Activists in Germany are fighting to make the procedure more widely available, even though it is technically a criminal offence. Esme Nicholson reports from Berlin.

ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: It's early evening on campus at the Charite, one of Germany's most prestigious teaching hospitals. Twenty-one-year-old Isabella Catanaza (ph) is taking a break from the library. As a third-year med student, she's pretty busy but still finds time to organize classes on subjects not offered by the university.

ISABELLA CATANAZA: (Through interpreter) I help run workshops for other medical students who want to learn how to terminate a pregnancy. The workshops are extracurricular, but we'd much prefer it if the university held them.

NICHOLSON: Catanaza says that at many medical schools in Germany, you can go the full six years without learning the basics of abortion.

CATANAZA: (Through interpreter) Some professors are progressive and teach abortion. But many dismiss it, claiming it's such a simple procedure, there's no need to talk about it. And others are openly against it.

NICHOLSON: The Charite told NPR that it teaches the theoretical principles of abortion, but the decision not to offer practical instruction was made in consultation with students. Federal Family Minister Lisa Paus wants abortion on every med school syllabus, but recognizes the current education gap boils down to the law. Abortion is illegal in Germany. And even though certain circumstances protect doctors and women from prosecution within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, the stigma sticks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LISA PAUS: (Through interpreter) Abortion has no place in criminal code and should not be treated as a felony.

NICHOLSON: Paus is a member of the Green Party, which, together with its governing coalition partner, the Social Democrats, is pushing to decriminalize abortion. But with a right to life enshrined in the constitution, legislative change will prove difficult, especially without the backing of opposition lawmakers, many of whom believe the right to life starts at conception. Gunter Krings is with the Christian Democrats. He sees no need for any change to the law.

GUNTER KRINGS: (Through interpreter) Starting a debate about the legality of abortion will only deter doctors from offering this difficult service. And while we recognize the need for abortion access in certain circumstances, I don't imagine any physician enjoys carrying out abortions.

NICHOLSON: Dr. Baier.

ALICIA BAIER: Hello.

NICHOLSON: Hey.

Dr. Alicia Baier is a gynecologist and co-founder of Doctors for Choice, a group advocating for legal abortion. She says there are just 1,200 abortion providers in all of Germany. But this isn't only about access. She says the fact it is not being widely taught creates a safety concern. Twelve percent of abortions, she says, are performed with the method the World Health Organization considers outdated.

BAIER: For doctors, they have the feeling they are doing something unlawful, something wrong. If they do any little mistake, they are almost half in prison, you could say.

NICHOLSON: Baier says that while the procedure is never pleasant, nothing will change until doctors stop being labeled as criminals.

BAIER: Often in Germany, you are seen as a murderer if you perform abortions.

NICHOLSON: Though, with medical students taking matters into their own hands, Baier says she's hopeful that access to safe abortions will improve even if attitudes towards the medics carrying them out don't.

For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS PASCHBURG'S "FRAGMENTATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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