37 days to go…Mass appeal…the similarity of German law and Irish proposals on abortion

The above video is of Conor O’ Dowd, son of Michael O’ Dowd of Disability Voices for Life, which is calling for a no vote in the referendum.

The majority of people with intellectual disability / I.D.  have Down’s syndrome. In previous posts, we covered how Down’s syndrome Ireland, the advocacy group complained about the pro life campaign’s posters which showed an image of a child with Down’s and which stated that 9/10 babies diagnosed with Down’s are aborted in the U.K..

The billboards Down Syndrome Ireland objected to


In previous posts, we’ve also discussed how German law allows abortions after 12 weeks on mental health risk grounds despite their being no ground for abortions of non-fatal disabilities there because of their Nazi past ( like Ireland’s proposals) and how Down’s babies diagnosed after 12 weeks on screening, are aborted in Germany, also at a rate of 9/10 pregnancies. This is because, the absence of a ground is meaningless without a specific ban in place and Ireland does not have a ban in place.

The following article is surprisingly from the most liberal of papers, the Irish Times, on a movie: ’24 weeks’ by a German director, Anne Zohra Berrached, which examines a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome. Being the Irish Times, she in the end explains that she is still pro-choice, which is probably the only reason it got published. She gives talks publicly on how high Down’s abortion rates are in Germany. This is because at the end of the day, she feels abortion is ‘modern’ and explains how it is right that Germany does not let its eugenics past ban the procedure. She may feel somehow exonerated in her pro-choice position  because she feels she is at least highlighting at her public talks, how very much Germany, like the UK and other countries are still killing their disabled in what is de facto eugenics done under another guise.

It would be rare that the Irish Times, would have a pro-life article other than something from Breda O’ Brien or the occasional one balanced with a pro-choice one. The following article is unusual in its highlighting of feticide: the killing of the baby after 20 weeks by injection with potassium chloride  /digitalis usually into the heart, umbilical cord or amniotic fluid. It’s also unusual in that a pro-life person is interviewed in it though the final word is given to a pro-choice movie director who seems to appeal to people to consider choosing to have babies that are disabled while enshrining nonetheless their continued right to abort them should they not wish to do so.

Shadow of history hangs over Germany’s abortion debate

Anti-abortion campaigners link Down syndrome abortions to Nazi eugenics practices

The laughter stops half an hour into the German film, 24 Weeks. A comedian and her manager husband announce to family and friends they are expecting their second child, a boy, with Down syndrome.

Smiles freeze. Someone murmurs: “Oh s**t.”

In heartbreaking and shocking detail, the film documents the subsequent moral and emotional rollercoaster as well as reactions of family and friends. “I’m sure you’ll manage.” “Are you sure about this?” “These days, you don’t have to have children like that at all costs.”

For a country that loves to count everything, Germany is curiously imprecise about Down syndrome. Caused by an additional third chromosome 21 or “trisomy 21”, people with Down syndrome are a rare sight on the streets. Of a population of almost 83 million, just an estimated 50,000 people, or 0.07 per cent of the population, have Down syndrome. In Ireland, with about 5,000 people, they comprise 0.15 per cent.

Director Anne Zohra Berrached decided to make 24 Weeks – now available on DVD with English subtitles – when she learned that about 90 per cent of Down syndrome pregnancies are terminated.

“I didn’t know that, no one does,” she said. Two years on she is still invited to talk to women’s groups, she says, and the first thing people often ask is: “Is it really 90 per cent?”

Uneasy compromise

In an uneasy compromise, Germany legislation makes abortions illegal but not prosecutable in the first 12 weeks. After that in the case of conditions such as Down syndrome, however, abortions remain possible to term. Decisive in such cases is not the diagnosis itself but the woman’s ability – or inability – to cope with the situation – and the child.

For late-term abortions after 20 weeks, not uncommon in Down syndrome cases, a lethal injection of potassium-chloride is used to stop the heart before labour is induced.

Things don’t always go to plan, as Germany learned 20 years ago with the so-called “Oldenburg Baby”. Just 690g and 32 cm, the boy born with Down syndrome survived a sixth-month termination after the doctor decided not to use a lethal injection.

His mother didn’t want to see the baby, named Tim by the father. When doctors discovered he was still alive, nine hours after birth, they began medical treatment. Today Tim lives with a foster family and, in July, will turn 21.

Heike Meyer-Rotsch, a mother of a six-year-old boy with Down syndrome, regrets what she see as an “automatism” in the German system.

“The termination is there in the room with the diagnosis,” said Ms Meyer-Rotsch, head of the Down Syndrome Berlin organisation, and mother of a six-year-old with the syndrome.

She sees Germany’s high termination rates as a self-fulfilling prophecy, caused by fear of the unknown and prejudice, caused in turn by the absence of Down syndrome in daily life.

Then there is the shadow of history that hangs over Germany’s Down syndrome debate.

Nazi Germany

From 1943 on, providing an abortion to an “Aryan” woman became a capital offence in Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, “non-Aryan” women were encouraged to have abortions, as were Aryan women who could demonstrate the child might be born with a congenital condition.

At the same time as 24 Weeks came out in 2016, German cinemas were also screening Fog in August, based on the true story of children in a Nazi-era orphanage murdered by euthanasia nurses dispensing poison-laced raspberry juice.

The Nazis murdered over 5,000 children deemed “unworthy of life”, a term that covered mental and physical handicaps but also disruptive or troubled behaviour.

German anti-abortion campaigners and Down syndrome groups see an uncomfortable overlap between Third Reich eugenics and modern prenatal testing, particularly given the high rate of Down syndrome and other abortions.

“Ethically, we find this extremely troubling because we had once in Germany this talk of ‘non-worthy’ life,” said Ms Meyer-Rotsch. “I find it threatening that a group of people are being discriminated against in the worst possible way.”

Ms Berrached says she welcomes every woman who decides for life and that they need full support.

“No woman makes this decision easily but the conflict situation is so individual that no one but they can decide,” she says.

But the director has a different take on the shadow of history that hangs over this difficult subject in Germany.

“I think the fact that a woman can decide not to have the child shows that we are modern,” she says, “and that we don’t use our history as an excuse to ban not having the child.


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