Women Seeking Abortion Still Experience Stigma in Switzerland

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In Switzerland, women who want to terminate a pregnancy often face hurdles. Swiss sexual-health specialists and the World Health Organization (WHO) are calling for changes to the legal framework on abortion.

Abortion has resurfaced as a political issue in Switzerland in the last few years. Debate in many countries has intensified since the federal right to abortion in the United States was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2022. The French parliament is bitterly discussing the introduction of a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. In Italy, the opposition is accusing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s party of subtly curtailing access to abortion.

The right to abortion in Switzerland is still governed by the criminal code. In 2002, voters approved legalising the procedure during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy “on written request by the woman, who must confirm that she is in a state of distress”. After 12 weeks, a medical provider must prove the procedure is “necessary to avoid a serious risk of physical harm to, or a state of profound distress in, the pregnant woman”.

The Swiss law, however, does not meet the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO), which were revised last year. The WHO recommends, among other things, that abortion be decriminalised completely and that it be legal at any stage of pregnancy.

In all 32 European countries – including France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom – have already passed abortion legislation outside the framework of criminal law.

Intense political debates

So far, the WHO recommendations have failed to win a political majority in Switzerland. In March, parliament rejected an initiative by left-leaning Green Party parliamentarian Léonore Porchet that aimed to remove abortion from the criminal code. The right-wing majority felt the current regulations, in existence for over 20 years, have proven satisfactory.

“It’s absurd to think that women who terminate a pregnancy will no longer be stigmatised if we remove abortion rules from the criminal code and create a separate law,” said Swiss People’s Party parliamentarian Yves Nidegger during the debates.

Anti-abortion activists have also been unsuccessful in winning over a majority. As in most of Europe, pro-life movements have grown recently in Switzerland. They have campaigned cleverly over the last decade or so to restrict the right to abortion. Despite their efforts, however, they remain in the minority, and their initiatives have never won a popular vote.

Anti-abortion groups recently suffered another loss. In December 2021, two People’s Party parliamentarians launched two popular initiatives, drawn up by pro-life organisations, that aimed to restrict access to voluntary terminations. These initiatives failed to collect – by the June 21, 2023, deadline – the 100,000 signatures necessary to trigger a popular vote.

Review by parliament

The political stalemate may soon be broken. In late August, the Federal Council (the executive branch of the Swiss government) supported a requestExternal link to re-evaluate abortion law. Four parliamentarians – centre-right Radical-Liberal Susanne Vincenz-Stauffacher, left-wing Social Democrat Min Li Marti, Porchet of the Green Party, and centrist Liberal Green Melanie Mettler – had all submitted parliamentary initiatives. The initiatives request that the government re-evaluate the legal regulations governing abortion, review existing obstacles to voluntary terminations, and propose solutions.

“The testimonies we receive show that women who want an abortion in Switzerland still face numerous obstacles,” Porchet explained. She cited in particular the stigmatisation of women who terminate a pregnancy. She added that “the inclusion of abortion in the criminal code creates heavy pressure on healthcare professionals”.

The parliamentary initiatives were approved by all parties except the People’s Party and have a good chance of being taken up soon by parliament. Those who want to preserve the current system are unhappy with the intervention. Parliamentarian Benjamin Roduit, one of the only members of the Centre Party who has supported anti-abortion initiatives, feels there is no reason to re-open the issue.

“It’s not a priority for the population or for politicians,” Roduit said. In his opinion, the demands for complete decriminalisation are extremist. “If the law is respected, there should be no obstacles for women who want to have an abortion,” he said.

Pushing women to question their decision

Roduit’s claim does not, however, seem to reflect the experience of many women who have had an abortion.

Marine Ehemann, 32, lives in Lausanne and has a PhD in political science. “I realised that my gynaecologist refused to perform abortions during a conversation about contraception,” she said. This prompted her to switch doctors, although at the time she hoped never to need an abortion.

“I was shocked to learn my doctor’s position,” she said. “I had been her patient for a number of years. A refusal to perform this procedure should be clearly stated.”

Some time later, a pregnancy test confirmed that Ehemann was pregnant. “Even though I was in a stable relationship and had a steady job, it wasn’t the right time for me at all. I still had important things going on, including my thesis,” she explained. After intense and difficult reflection, she decided to have an abortion.

Ehemann was obliged to wait for two weeks, however, because her pregnancy was still too early to be confirmed by ultrasound. “The delay was painful, especially because I was developing pregnancy symptoms,” she confided. Although sure of her decision, she was nonetheless required to confirm it several times. “The process is long and pushes you to question your choice. It requires you to be strong,” she said.

Delays

Sexual-health specialists frequently hear stories similar to Ehemann’s. “Even if a woman is sure she wants to terminate her pregnancy, it’s not uncommon for her to have to make a second appointment before her doctor will give her the first abortion pill. This amounts to an enforced reflection period,” said a sexual-health counsellor who wishes to remain anonymous.

Barbara Berger, the director of Santé Sexuelle Suisse (Swiss Sexual Health), notes the same difficulties. She also points out that a number of gynaecologists in Switzerland refuse to perform abortions because of their religious or ethical convictions.

In Italy, conscientious objectors are well documented: 64.6% of the country’s gynaecologists do not perform abortions, according to the latest dataExternal link published by the health ministry in 2020. Switzerland, however, has no comparable statistics.

“[Swiss] public hospitals are required to offer abortions. If someone refuses to perform terminations, someone else will have to do it for them. This can create delays,” explained Berger. Private clinics and practices are free to choose whether or not to offer abortions.

Decriminalise to destigmatise?

Berger believes abortion has a persistent stigma because it is regulated by the criminal code. “This kind of system puts a lot of pressure on medical personnel, who want to be sure that a woman makes a good decision. This invites moral commentary,” she said. She also criticises the current law for requiring women to prove they are in a state of distress.

Santé Sexuelle Suisse feels the solution is obvious: abortion should no longer be regulated by the criminal code but instead by public-health legislation, as in France. Berger believes this would allow a patient’s choice and her health to take centre stage. “Once a woman has made her decision,” she said, “abortion should be available to her without delay and without obstacles.”

Source : SWI