Controversy over the abortion issue seen in modern German history

It seems that the sense that “sexuality is the most private thing, and therefore, it should not be discussed in public” is still rooted in Japan. It does not mean that in Japan no attempts have been made to discuss sexuality in public. However, in Europe and the U.S., such movements were seen from a much earlier time.

For example, in Germany, when abortion was legally prohibited, after the 1871 unification, especially around the turn of the 20th century, abortion started to be discussed in public. The spread of neo-Malthusianism, which claims the need to restrict the number of children and smaller family to aim for improvement of human quality (ability) and escape poverty by birth control*1, and social Darwinism were behind it. Abortion has been deeply related to politics beyond the private sphere.

Examples in which discussions over abortion developed into controversy and movement can be seen in German history as well as in other countries historically. A major example is the second wave of the feminism movement, which arose in western countries in the latter half of the 1960s. Since the 1960s, the concept of human rights had been spreading widely, and that led to the movement to claim rights for women.

For example, just after the “1968 movement,” in the former West Germany, the movement to legalize abortion arose with the slogan saying “my belly belongs to me.” In June 6, 1971, following a case in France*2, 374 women who had an abortion confessed their own experiences in a major weekly magazine called Stern.

This movement to legalize abortion developed beyond the social status and gender gap. Not only women but also men thought about this issue from the male perspective. In some movements, men staged large demonstrations in cooperation with women.

Moreover, among Christians, although Protestants can be said to show relatively more understanding about abortion than Catholics, the discussion arose beyond sects and religions. Furthermore, opinions were divided within major political parties. After going through such debates, in 1976, abortions based on medical, eugenic, criminal, societal (economic) reasons were legalized.

On the other hand, the former East Germany, which was a role model for eastern countries, without social movements “from the bottom” like the former West Germany, and without being fully discussed among the Volkskammer (People’s Chamber) and citizens, in 1972, being led by the state, abortions within 12 weeks of pregnancy became permissible.

Debates over abortion heated up again when Germany, which was divided in the east and the west after the war, was reunited in 1990. It took about five years before the abortion laws were unified. In the meantime, if this law had not been established, it was even said that it would have been difficult to realize the unification of the east and the west.

The major issue over abortion is the viewpoint of protecting the life and the human rights of the preborn child and the viewpoint of the right of women’s self-determination. The former is a viewpoint which cannot be ignored. On the other hand, abortion is a decision made by “me” after thoroughly considering various situations and issues which each woman has. It does not mean that women are disparaging the lives of preborn children.

Therefore, isn’t it also important for society to respect and accept women’s decisions? For that, information sharing is necessary. However, so far in Germany, it was regarded as “advertising” for doctors and hospitals to provide information on abortion, and such behavior was illegal according to Section 219a of the Criminal Code.

Against this, in 2017, an obstetrician-gynecologist Christina Hänel in Giessen protested by publishing detailed information on abortion on the internet, etc. After that, many debates and social movements arose concerning the pros and cons of the relevant section of the code. As a result, Section 219a of the Criminal Code was abolished.

The fact that social interest in abortion reignited as such is a valuable chance to rethink about not only the abortion issue but also the relation between sexuality and politics and society, and political interference with sexuality.

*1 Birth control. To control or adjust the conception and childbirth by artificial methods such as contraception and abortion.
*2 In April 5, 1971, “The Manifesto of the 343,” centering around Simone de Beauvoir, was published in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

“My” sexuality at the mercy of politics

As stated above, in Germany, through various debates and movements, abortion advanced gradually in the direction of being approved as a women’s self-determination right, and in 2022, Section 219a of the Criminal Code was deleted. Around the same time in the U.S., the Supreme Court decision which said that “abortion is a woman’s right approved by the constitution” in the 1973 “Roe v. Wade ruling” was overturned. This suggests that abortion is a very sensitive issue as well as an issue which is at the mercy of political and religious judgements.

In fact, it is possible for any countries that their laws, policies, systems, norms concerning birth control are inconsistent and wavering, and also not unusual from the historical perspective.

For example, in Japan, “beget and multiply” was upheld as a national slogan during the World War II, and the state prohibited birth control by a so-called “healthy person” by the National Eugenical Act. Especially for countries at war, increasing the number of children meant enhancement of the future military force and work force.

When the war ended and men came home from the battlefields, the baby boom started, and about 8 million children were born between 1947 and 1949. Then, against the rapid population increase, conception control was promoted and abortion regulations were considerably relaxed.

Moreover, “parents and perhaps two kids” became a model case for a household. In the latter half of 1960s, a father, the sole breadwinner, and a mother, the full-time housewife, and two kids became a standard family which would be widely accepted.

However, after the 2nd baby boom, when the declining trend of births became apparent from the latter half of the 1970s, the countermeasures to the declining birthrate became an important policy, and support for fertility treatment, etc., has also become more generous recently.

In other words, the state has been interfering with what we tend to think of as completely private matters, such as marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth, depending on the political, economic, and societal situations at the time, through regulations and support.

As an example of the efforts by the state influencing the norm itself, the discussion about homosexuality and same-sex marriage has been getting a lot of attention in recent years. Triggered by “a law to promote LGBT understanding,” will Japan advance in a direction to eliminate homosexuality discrimination, and furthermore, to legally approve same-sex marriage? Currently, Japan seems to be in a transition period of the state’s efforts on sexuality.

Pregnancy and childbirth are matters related to personal body. Individual sexuality, including homosexuality, is also unique and diverse. But that does not mean that all the decision rights related to our body and sexuality belong to “me.” On the other hand, they do not have to be completely restricted by traditional regulations and norms.

What is a “self-determination right” for “me”? – thinking from an international comparison –

When we look back at history, it is clear from preceding research that securing and protecting individual rights by the state was done in parallel with interfering with individual sexuality.

For example, in Germany, when imperialism spread and individuals were positioned as “nationals” and attempts were made to form more robust nation-states mainly among world powers, under Bismarck in 1880s, labor protection laws and labor insurance laws (disease, workers’ accident compensation, old-age and disability) started for the first time in the world. On the other hand, for example, abortion was prohibited whatever the reason might be, based on Section 218 of the Criminal Code, which was derived from a Prussian law.

That is, in order to bring peace and wealth to the nation and nationals, a system was formed (German social state), which to some extent interfered with nationals who were going to be integrated in the nation, regardless of the sphere being public or private, while recognizing (or having to recognize) each individual’s rights, including those of workers.

However, as mentioned at the beginning, in the 1960s, when people raised their voices for human rights or freedom and democracy, and especially since the latter half of 1960s, when the 1968 movement (student movement) spread worldwide, this system has stopped functioning sufficiently. Public authority became unable to handle situations, such as deviation from marriage and child rearing, diversification of the family, and sexual liberation of youngsters, through laws, traditional sexual morals, and ideologies. Japan is not an exception.

Then, can we, who live in modern times, which is an extension of the past, choose and decide on private issues with our own will? Isn’t “my” “self-determination right” unconsciously threatened or self-determination itself biased?

How are “my” body and sexuality being manipulated? It is important to keep that in mind when we lead our lives. One of the methods to do that is to pay attention to information from the world as well as in Japan, and try to internationally compare them yourself.

When you do that, for example, concerning the completely opposite decisions made over abortion in Germany and the U.S., what is more important than which one is right or wrong, is to be interested in what kind of opinions and arguments are out there concerning abortion, and to collect information from various perspectives, not only from Germany and the U.S. but also from other countries and societies and people, including Japan.

By getting in touch with diverse values and thoughts, and reflecting our thought each time and adjusting it in some cases, “I” will be able to make an appropriate choice and decision.

Moreover, concerning sexuality, as a part of information collection, comprehensive sex education conveying unbiased and real information is also important.

In addition to basic knowledge of the body, birth control, pregnancy, and childbirth, learning about sexual violence and SOGI (Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity), etc., will trigger us to think about sexual diversity, and furthermore, the right to self-determination. It is reassuring that, in recent years, the number of teachers who can offer sex education has increased, and youngsters have more opportunities to encounter sex education.

Sexuality is deeply related to “my” way of life. For example, are marriage and childbirth necessary events in your life to live in your own way? By genuinely and seriously facing and thinking about “my” sexuality, wouldn’t you be able to lead a more fruitful life?

* The information contained herein is current as of June 2023.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.