Senate favours easing abortion laws

Parliament abortion

Three decades of wrangling over abortion, which is still illegal in Switzerland, took another turn on Thursday when the Senate voted to allow it within the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy.

This content was published on September 21, 2000

However, the issue is by no means decided. The other chamber of parliament, the House of Representatives, wants to see a more liberal solution.

Pro-life groups, meanwhile, have made it clear they will challenge any liberalisation at the ballot box.

In theory, Switzerland has one of most restrictive abortion laws in western Europe. Under current regulations, dating back to the 1940s, abortions in Switzerland are illegal and are only allowed under exceptional circumstances.

But in reality, every year an estimated 12,000 women have an abortion. The authorities in urban regions of the country have started interpreting the law in more liberal ways over the past 10 years.

Women who wish to have an abortion need two independent medical opinions. Abortions, performed by licensed doctors, are also allowed if the life or health of a mother-to-be is in danger.

The issue of abortion has been on the agenda for the past 30 years. In 1977, voters rejected a proposal to liberalise it. In the early 1990s, parliament began considering an amended law, aimed at granting women abortions in the early stages of a pregnancy.

Thursday's debate in the Senate was marked by the question whether mandatory or voluntary counselling should be introduced. Mainly members of the Christian Democratic Party, which has its strongholds in Catholic regions, pleaded for compulsory counselling.

Others put forward purely legal arguments or tried to make the bill a counter-proposal to a people's initiative by a pro-life group, which aims to tighten abortion laws.

During the debate, most speakers acknowledged that the current legal situation is absurd and hypocritical.

The justice minister, Ruth Metzler, said the government favoured a solution with mandatory counselling. She also stressed the importance of prevention and individual responsibility.

The bill now goes back to the House of Representatives, which two years ago came out in favour of allowing abortion within the first 14 weeks of a pregnancy.

If the bill gets final approval by parliament, it is highly likely to be challenged in a nationwide vote by conservative groups. However, recent opinion polls show a large majority in favour of liberalising abortion.

by Urs Geiser

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