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Swiss set to legalise abortion

Doctors will have to give women abortion counselling

(Keystone)

Abortion is likely to be legalised in Switzerland, after exit polls from Sunday's ballot showed that 70 per cent had voted in favour.

The move would permit abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and bring legislation into line with current practice, which effectively allows abortion on demand.

A counter-proposal to tighten the 1942 law, which bans the practice unless a women's health is at risk, looked set to be rejected by a margin of 80 per cent. That initiative - "For Mother and Child" - would have banned abortion even in cases of rape.

Loopholes in the existing law, which prohibits terminations unless a woman's health is in danger, have long enabled women to have abortions - currently between 12,000 and 13,000 terminations take place every year. That accounts for about one in every eight pregnancies.

Abortion on demand

The reason is because it is left up to the regional health authorities to decide how to interpret the law, and virtually all allow abortion, with the exception of three small cantons in predominantly Catholic rural areas, which maintain an outright ban.

No woman has been convicted for an abortion-related offence since 1988, and only five physicians have been convicted for ignoring the abortion laws in the past nine years.

As well as having government backing, the proposal to legalise abortion was supported by parliament and two of the four main political parties. The Protestant Church and the country's main women's organisation, Alliance F, were also behind the proposal.

Tightening the law

Opponents of abortion are also dissatisfied with the present legislation, but for a different reason. The country's main pro-life group, Swiss Aid for Mother and Child, wants to see an outright ban on abortion introduced, even where the pregnancy is the result of rape.

But the group had the open backing of only one fundamentalist religious party. The main women's organisation and the Protestant Church both came out against the initiative, while the Roman Catholic Church recommended that voters reject both proposals.

Previous votes failed

Sunday's ballot was the fourth vote on abortion in Switzerland since 1977, when only 31 per cent voted in favour of legalisation. All previous attempts to either tighten or ease regulations on a nationwide level have failed to win a majority.

But social and political changes in the past 30 years appear to have changed attitudes towards abortion.

Switzerland's abortion rate is among the lowest of any developed country. Nearly half of all abortions are carried out on women over the age of 30, while teenage pregnancies account for about ten per cent of terminations.

Compared with other European countries Switzerland has - in theory - some of the most restrictive abortion laws alongside the Irish Republic, Poland and Portugal.

France and Italy introduced liberal abortion laws in the 1970, while counselling is mandatory in Germany and Austria before a woman can have a termination.

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