Know Your Options: Abortion Services Abroad

Previously, I wrote about my encounter with German reproductive health legislations circa 2012. I only got so far as figuring out how to avert disaster via morning after pill as no further inquiry into foreign laws surrounding my uterus was necessary, thank goodness for that. No pregnancy scares, no STI nightmares. But that was four years ago.

Last time I was in Berlin, it was for a short enough while that I really didn’t need to concern myself with the what-ifs of the sex-during-travels world. This time, however, having no plans to leave anytime soon and a propensity to monthly panics, I decided that a bit of research couldn’t do me any harm.

Actually, this was spurred on by a nightmare I had a few weeks ago. I had been engaging in steady, monogamous intercourse for a good while now, and up until that point, my worries were brief and fleeting. But in the dream, I was standing in front of a mirror, watching myself pick up a pregnancy test. I don’t remember what the test actually said, but I can recall saying to my reflection, “I can’t be pregnant.” Or maybe it was my reflection talking to me. I kept repeating it to myself until I was screaming it, and my face in the reflection started distorting, my features becoming exaggerated and scary as my shrill exclamations grew louder and louder. Then my aunt showed up and saw me, and with a lot of effort my reflection managed to restore my face as before. My aunt stopped in her tracks and asked what was wrong, because she caught a glimpse of the facial distortion. I tried to play it off cool. Nothing’s wrong. She handed me a pill and told me that it was for anxiety. I woke up then, more anxious than I had been in a long while.

The next morning, unbeknownst to my significant other, I went to buy a pregnancy test. In case you’re wondering, you can pick up a test in any drugstore or Apotheke (Rossman, DM, etc). They go for anywhere from €4 to €20, depending on how fancy you want a thing you pee on to be.

I should mention that my resolve at this point is to not have children. I know many people much younger than myself who have gotten pregnant, even in a country where they had no intention of staying, and decided to keep it. No child goes unloved, no matter what the situation is. Kudos to them, but it’s not for me. If ever I became pregnant, there’s only one option.

Before I go any further, I’d like to just let you know that I didn’t even end up using the pregnancy test. It turned out that it was unnecessary and that my paranoia was completely unfounded. Sweet relief came, but between then and the time when I was in the thrall of could-I-be-pregnant suspicions, I did an immense amount of Google searches putting together a contingency plan. What I found out did not lessen my nightmares much.

The first tidbit of information that I found both confusing and astounding was that in Germany, termination of pregnancy is technically illegal, although not punishable. This is apparently due to an attempt to reconcile the laws of East Germany, where termination on demand was legal, and West Germany, where it was much stricter and illegal unless there are extreme circumstances. While this makes little difference in the clinical outcome of such procedures, it has all the potential to contextualize the situation in a specific light and ultimately cause damage to those enduring it. It says to the women who wish to opt for termination that they are criminals for doing so, that they may have autonomy over their bodies insofar as they realize that this is defined as criminally offensive by the state. It tells the doctors who provide such services that they are in some instances aiding and abetting in, if not committing murder. As if an abortion in and of itself isn’t enough of a trauma for someone to face, there is added guilt purely in  the semantics of it.

Secondly, excluding termination due to medical difficulties or sexual assault, a woman must first go through mandatory counselling before she can receive a Beratungsschein, or counselling certificate. It is only with this certificate that she may have permission to continue with her termination. I have yet to speak to anyone who has gone through this, so for all I know this type of counselling might be perfectly matter of fact and non-invasive. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if it might also be patronizing or even demeaning. Could such counsellors be instated for the purpose of dissuading patients from termination, again cause for added trauma and guilt? No one approaches an abortion flippantly (and if they do, they probably shouldn’t be a mother anyway). It seems like these proceedings are merely throwing salt into the wound.  

After this Beratungsschein is received, there is a mandatory 3-day waiting period after which one can proceed. As far as payment goes, the lines start to blur. If you have state insurance, it seems to be covered by that. If, however, you’re here on a visa like I am with insurance that you bought into, it’s very unlikely that it also covers abortion. If you’re in a lower income bracket, you may be eligible for funding, but this is on a strict case by case basis. In most likely instances, as a visitor, you’d have to pay up. The costs vary from around €350 to €500, depending on whether you opt for medically-induced (ie. abortion pill) or surgical. I believe these prices also include anaesthetics and other extraneous devices, but sources weren’t consistent on this. Be sure to do your own research.

€350 to €500 isn’t a sum of money that I’d be able to pay up lightly without second thought. When I was at the crest of my worry, I even considered if booking a flight back to my native country (Canada) to get the procedure done might end up being the more economical choice. Termination by choice is completely covered by the Canadian healthcare system, and as a citizen I’d be able to go ahead with my choice without enduring any counselling or waiting period. If I were a German or possibly even EU citizen, the cost might be mitigated. As per my situation, I’d have to pay up either way. Definitely not something that I wanted to do—that kind of money goes a really, really long way in Berlin.

Thankfully, my worries subsided quickly enough. Still, being in that situation is a scary reality to some. The stigma surrounding it can make you feel intensely alone, even more so when you are far away from your familial support system. While it’s not the end of the world and, like most German bureaucracy, it’s all about jumping through the hoops one at a time, what surprised me perhaps the most was how Berlin’s progressive view on so many issues did not manage to permeate through to this issue. But Berlin is not the rest of Germany, and living here I often forget that. It’s a controversial topic even for some of the most progressive minds out there, and will continue to remain so for the foreseeable future.

I stand firm on my belief that a woman should be able to decide her own fate and have complete agency over her body in such circumstances, but I understand that that is not the view held by many. At the very least, these legislations allow for termination in the worst of cases without question (ie. medical complications, endangerment to the mother, sexual assault, etc.) whereas certain countries, even in the EU, do not allow for this, point blank. It is my solemn hope that this will change, and that legislation surrounding reproductive health in Germany and beyond will continue to move towards dignity and autonomy. Until then, I hope that far and few will have to endure the uncomfortable panic that I brought onto myself all those weeks ago.

By Sandy Di Yu
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