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Saturday, 1 June, 2002, 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK
Emotive appeals before Swiss abortion vote
Swiss laws on abortion are among the strictest in Europe

The wide eyed, smiling baby in the poster by Geneva's train station has been photographed to look as if he's about to crawl into the arms of the onlooker.

Walking past the billboard, you feel a strange sense that you really ought to put out your hands to catch him.

The maxim underneath the poster reads simply, "Thank you, Mummy, for voting for me."

It is the latest campaign of the Mother and Child initiative - backed by religious and Pro-Life groups and some politicians - to stop the Swiss people approving a government proposal in this weekend's referendum on decriminalising abortions carried out in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Behind the times

"Under our constitution it is illegal to take another's life and to kill, " says Christoph Keel from Swiss Aid for Mother and Child, the largest Swiss Pro-Life Group.

"This is true of the unborn child. To kill an unborn child is to deny the child its human right to life. So abortion must be illegal."

Although Switzerland is in so many ways one of Europe's most forward-thinking countries - its drug addicts are given heroin on prescription and those with terminal illnesses are given the right to die - the Swiss policy on abortion lags way behind the majority of its European counterparts.


We haven't convicted any woman for having an abortion for at least 14 years

Adrienne Lotz, Swiss Ministry for Justice

Some 12,000 abortions are legally carried out in Switzerland, but according to the Ministry of Justice, the real figure could be as high as 130,000.

In spite of this it is still officially illegal to terminate a pregnancy unless the mother's health or life is at risk.

A woman who performs her own abortion or lets it be performed, is subject to up to five years' imprisonment and a heavy fine.

In 1950, there were nearly 670 convictions, but today, because abortion is known to be widely practised, there are no known cases of arrest.

"The Swiss situation is that this enforcement law is no longer applied - we haven't convicted any woman for having an abortion for at least 14 years," argues Adrienne Lotz from the Swiss Ministry for Justice.

"We are not proposing that abortion should be legalised - we are asking that it should be decriminalised for the first 12 weeks - and even then a woman must make a written request and agree to counselling and medical advice on all other options available to her."

Strict ban

But because Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons, or states, all of which have judicial powers and health care systems of their own, the law has very different interpretations around the country.

Many cantons opt for a broad interpretation of the law, allowing a woman to have an abortion not just if her health is at risk, but also if her social or economic situation is unstable.

In the Roman Catholic cantons though, in central Switzerland, the law is upheld very firmly and a strict ban on pregnancy termination remains in force.

scan of foetus
Polls suggest abortion will be decriminalised
"We are convinced that doctors are there to serve life and not to destroy it," says Christoph Keel. "The punishment for doctors who perform abortions should be to lose their licence to practise.

"No doctor would want to risk his licence so if no doctors would agree to do abortions, there would be far fewer abortions."

The latest polls suggest that Switzerland will vote in favour of decriminalising abortion, with an estimated 63% of voters approving the softening of the law.

But Adrienne Lotz, from the Ministry of Justice says even if the decriminalisation law does go through, it shouldn't be taken as an indication that the Swiss Government or the Swiss people are absolutely pro-abortion.

"No-one is in favour of abortions in themselves - the Swiss Government is committed to reducing the numbers of terminations and we want to work further on developing our family policy aims to get this message across."

See also:

13 Mar 02 | Europe
08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
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