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Health policy Abortion in Switzerland: the debate and the law

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Participants on the "March for Life" demonstration in Bern in 2018. A similar event is organised in Zurich on Saturday.

(Keystone / Anthony Anex)

Switzerland allows abortion in the initial weeks of pregnancy, as does most of Europe. The government has defended the policy when presented with a petition from abortion opponents.

A Christian circle represented by the association “March for Lifeexternal link” is demonstrating in Zurich on September 14. In February, the group submitted a petition with 24,000 signatures to the federal government, requesting that it “raise public awareness about the consequences of abortion”.

The petitioners believe that hospitals and family planning counselling centres caring for women with unwanted pregnancies provide one-sided information.

Low abortion rate

“Is the executive prepared to meet the demands of this petition?” Franz Ruppen, a parliamentarian from the conservative right Swiss People's Party, askedexternal link the Federal Council (Switzerland’s government) in March.

In May he received a categorical reply that the government “has no evidence of any shortcomings and sees no need to adopt specific measures”.

The Federal Council reiterated that Switzerland has very low abortion rates, and particularly few abortions among adolescents.

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What does the law say?

The Swiss Penal Codeexternal link permits abortion in the first 12 weeks after the first day of the last menstrual period, under the following conditions:

- During a consultation with a doctor, the woman signs a form in which she states her distress about the unwanted pregnancy and requests an abortion.

- The doctor must inform her in detail about the physical and psychological effects of the procedure. If not, the doctor can be penalised.

- The woman receives a list of free counselling centres and information on the possibility of having the child adopted if she continues the pregnancy.

- If the woman is under 16 years old, she must be directed to a specialised centre for guidance.

Methods

Different methods exist for terminating a pregnancy. Medication abortion is the most prevalent (74%). It is most used before the ninth week of pregnancy.

The surgical method is used in 26% of cases.

Late abortion

In all, 95% of abortions in Switzerland take place during the first three months of pregnancy.

However, abortion is also legal beyond the 12-week limit, if the physical and/or psychological health of the pregnant woman is in danger. In 2018, 528 abortionsexternal link out of a total of 10,457 were carried out in this context.

Who has an abortion

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Swiss statistical data on the matter is highly reliable, since any termination of pregnancy must be reported to the public health authorities. The anonymity of the woman concerned is guaranteed and medical confidentiality must be respected.

The procedure is covered by compulsory health insurance.

Around the world

According to the world map of abortion laws, produced by the Center for Reproductive Rights,external link countries in the northern hemisphere place far few restrictions on abortion than in the South, where some prohibit it altogether. These include Egypt and El Salvador, which has had one of the world's toughest anti-abortion laws since 1998.

In El Salvador, dozens of women have been prosecuted for trying to abort in wretched conditions or having had a miscarriage. 

The country is an example of the changing religious landscape in Central and Southern America, where evangelical Christians are spearheading a social struggle against women's reproductive rights.

There are also signs of a new conservative wave in countries like the United States, where various states are witnessing attempts to restrict access to abortion.

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