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Berlin is so cool, in a pro-life kind of way

2013 November 11
by Zoe Strimpel
Watertower, Mitte, Berlin. Perhaps Germany could put as much effort into its chronically backward birth control policies as it does its phallic landmarks

Television Tower, Mitte, Berlin. Perhaps Germany could put as much effort into its chronically backward birth control policies as it does its phallic landmarks

Berlin is one of the coolest cities in the world right now. Everyone – from Europe’s most creative (and only slightly failed) artists, to the serious philosopher scholars of Scandinavia, to the American college students on tour, to the Israelis seeking hipsterdom and family allowances at lesser prices – thinks so. They’re all here, after all. I’m here too, 78 years after my grandfather – now 93 and living in North London – left due to Nazi ascendance.

And great parts of it I like a great deal. I like the reflexive elegance, the enormous apartments, the minimalist shop windows; the parade of white-washed galleries; the cafes with velvet sofas, plum cakes and Florentine espresso machines. And let’s not forget the expert curation of past and present culture: the museums and classical music.

But Berlin, for all its flexibility and open-ness in dealing with its past, its creative approach to museums, and its great eye for sleek modern design, is profoundly retarded in one very important area – along with the rest of Germany. Namely: a woman’s right to choose – and be respected in that right.

With a degree of ignorant and indignant surprise, I bring you the news (news for me, anyway) that Germany’s birth control policies are among Europe’s least progressive. They are queasily paternal and – having lived in England (land of free, no-questions-asked abortions, full STD tests, and hassle free morning after pill acquisition) for so many years – I find them shocking. Oh, and sinister, for they hint at how thin the membrane is between the rights I take for granted in England, and the monstrous welter of patriarchal oppression only so recently put into shadow. Only 550 miles from London is a country that basically still thinks that when a condom breaks, a woman should apologise to God for her sins and meekly take her punishment.

The abortion policy in Christian Democratic Germany requires mandatory counselling, and a wait of at least three days between the counselling and the abortion, to ensure the woman doesn’t have the luxury of a short period of emotional discomfort. She must suffer, at the very least (and pay – abortions cost €300-€500 unless income falls below a certain extremely low level). But this is an improvement on the recent state of things: before 1992 in West Germany, a woman needed the “approval” of two doctors and could have an abortion only if her mental and physical health were “severely” threatened or she had been the victim of sexual violence. No doubt in both cases she’d have to be submitted to extensive examinations, physical and psychological, like something out of a Victorian clinic for lunatic women. I wouldn’t be the first to posit the notion that abortion law is made complex and obstructive just so doctors get the chance to poke around inside women. Historically, physical examinations have been a veritable obsession (see Michel Foucault and Elaine Showalter for more on this).

Now take the morning after pill which is not, in Germany, just a pill. It is, rather, a murder – one that can be authorised, to be sure, but not without extensive and humiliating hoop-jumping.

If a woman strolls into a pharmacy expecting the respect of Europe’s richest state to assume that the choice to pay £25 to take a pill that will disrupt her period and possibly her state of mind and stomach, simply because she happens to be the one who – out of the two – gets pregnant, is not taken with gay abandon, but rather the desire not to become a parent, than she has another thing coming. Unlike in Bulgaria, Ireland, Turkey, France, Scandinavia and Israel, she must get a prescription. Which is to say, permission. She must pay at least €100 for this prescription if she is uninsured, plus the €25 cost of the pill. If she doesn’t have a private doctor who can nip out and write her the prescription on short notice, she will have to miss work, or the best part of a weekend day (likely when she is emotionally distressed and hungover to hell), to go and sit in a hospital emergency room. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as she waits for the paternal system of control over her body to work its way through to the pill itself. Every second the woman is made to find hospitals and clinics, and wait in emergency rooms for (usually male) doctors, the fetus grows. Which is ironic for a country that makes you do all this because it DOESN’T want to murder unborn babies.

I met a woman this morning who said she had her first child because of the difficulty of accessing the morning after pill in Berlin. She was told she’d need a physical examination (not true, in fairness) by a gynecologist (a grey area) and – since German pharmacists and hospital administrators insist that a three-day delay in taking the pill is FINE (it isn’t), this lady simply decided to wait till she went back to her homeland in Scandinavia to get it, a few days later. It was, against the counsel of Germany’s contraceptive gatekeepers, too late. Granted, she kept the child and seems happy with the decision (she’s had another one too) so it couldn’t have been all bad.

These rules are, obviously, linked to Christianity (one of the places German women can go to receive no doubt completely unbiased pre-abortion counselling is a church centre) and echo much of the weird bullshit surrounding contraception in the US. Thus it is no coincidence that abortion law was more punitive in West Germany (until 1992, the woman had to be either raped or suicidal to get one) than in Communist and therefore secular East Germany (abortion was legalised in 1974 in the GDR).

But Christianity isn’t the whole story. The birth control palaver is also a serious example of a set of attitudes that can be summed up by the ideas of “no” instead of “yes”, of “I am not authorised to…” instead of “let me see if…” and of “here are all the reasons why you cannot…” or “why it is not possible” rather than “hmm, let me get the manager”. But that’s for the next post. Let me now just say how glad I am to have been got used to the machinations one of the best contraceptive states on earth. It’s just too bad that on going just a few hundred miles away, one finds remnants of a world that one had lazily hoped gone from Western Europe.



One Response leave one →
  1. Darko permalink
    November 12, 2013

    Hi Zoe! This is not a comment for this topic, but as I didn`t find other way to write you about one article that I wrote, I must write to you here… The article you wrote was about young single women who should avoid using Facebook… I think you are God damn right! Not just girls, but also single men become unhappy by seeing their friends` pictures, looking happy on them…but in most cases it is just a mask or an empty shell, nice from outside and nothing inside! This message is a kind of support to you! Wish you all the best and many good books and articles. Greetings from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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