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Catholic doctors face stark choice on abortion

Pregnant women will be asked to seek advice before making a final decision


If voters say yes to legalising abortion in a ballot on Sunday, Switzerland's Catholic cantons will have to start allowing the procedure.

Switzerland's current abortion law, which dates from 1942, permits abortion only if the mother's health is considered to be seriously at risk.

Even so around 12,000 abortions are carried out each year because many doctors are prepared to approve the procedure. On Sunday, voters will decide whether to bring the legislation into line with reality in a ballot aimed at legalising abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

If they vote yes - and the polls suggest they will - the effects will be most profound in the Catholic cantons of central Switzerland, where women often have difficulties getting an abortion because local doctors are opposed to it.

In Nidwalden, for example, women who want to end their pregnancies must travel to another canton, because Nidwalden's cantonal hospital does not include abortion on its list of approved medical procedures.

Dr Hans Galliker, who is Nidwalden's cantonal doctor, says the policy is determined by the chief doctor at the hospital.

Doctors opposed to abortion

"This doctor was appointed over 20 years ago, " Galliker told swissinfo. "And at that time many Catholic cantons were deliberately appointing doctors who were opposed to abortion."

Many Nidwalden doctors, including Galliker, are unhappy that the cantonal hospital does not offer abortions, but say that if Swiss voters approve the new law the policy will have to change.

"And if not," Galliker points out, "the chief doctor is close to retirement anyway, and I'm sure his replacement will have a different point of view."

In the meantime, Galliker and other Nidwalden doctors refer their patients to hospitals in other cantons for abortions. The process takes longer, and costs more than if it were to take place within the canton. Ironically, Galliker explains, Nidwalden foots the bill.

"What we are doing is buying a medical service outside the canton," he explained. "It's not so unusual; we do the same for heart surgery. But of course it costs more, and because the patients' insurance won't pay the extra, the canton pays it."

Difficult delay for women

Galliker estimates that he refers between 10 and 15 women a year for abortions, not a large number. As he explains, many Nidwalden women do in the end opt for other solutions.

"This is a staunchly Catholic region," he said. "And many women do decide to continue with the pregnancy, even if it was unplanned."

Some Nidwalden women who are unsure what to do end up in Lucerne, at the door of Claudia Wyrsch, who is a counsellor for the pregnancy advisory service. The service covers cantons Lucerne, Obwalden and Nidwalden.

"If women from canton Nidwalden come to me and really want an abortion," Wyrsch told swissinfo. "I can refer them to doctors in Zurich."

"This is a relief for the women; some of them come here thinking they may not be permitted an abortion at all. But it takes about a week to do everything; the check up, the talk with the psychologist and so on."

"This waiting is a big burden for women to bear," Wyrsch continued. "If they could stay in their own canton they could be in and out of hospital in a day."

And, Wyrsch says, if the new abortion law is approved, Nidwalden will have to offer abortions in its own hospitals.

"Under the new law," she explained, "each canton will be required to offer this medical service itself."

"Outdated and unfair"

But Wyrsch will be voting for a change in Switzerland's abortion law not primarily because of cases like Nidwalden, but because she thinks the current law is outdated and unfair to women.

"The law we have now is from 1942," she pointed out. "It's just not suited to the way we live now. And the most important thing in the new law is that it allows women to make the decision themselves. They won't have to get permission from a doctor and a psychologist."

In fact, the new law will still require women to consult their doctors before going ahead with an abortion, but legally the decision will be theirs and not the medical profession's.

Dr Hans Galliker too will be voting in favour of the change. "The new law will simply legalise a situation which in reality we already have. It would be anachronistic not to vote in favour."

The government backed initiative to legalise abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy goes before voters on June 2.

The most recent opinion poll indicates that a majority of Swiss people share the opinions of Wyrsch and Galliker. The latest figures indicate that 63 per cent of voters will say yes to the initiative.

by Imogen Foulkes

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