- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 1, 2002

GENEVA On the statute books, Switzerland has one of Europe's toughest anti-abortion laws. Doctors who carry out terminations can face five years in prison, while women who have abortions can get three-year jail terms.

But about 13,000 women in Switzerland have abortions every year in regular clinics, and none has been convicted for an abortion-related offense since 1988. Officials said only five physicians had been convicted in the past nine years for ignoring abortion rules.

Voters will be asked to decide in a referendum tomorrow whether to change the 60-year-old law to bring abortion out of the legal netherworld or toughen the legislation to curb terminations.

Switzerland's abortion law is less restrictive than the virtual bans in Ireland and Poland. But the rules are far tougher than in Britain, France or the Netherlands.

Under current law, any licensed doctor may carry out an abortion if he or she believes the pregnancy would put a woman's life and health including mental health in danger. But the doctor must first get a second, written opinion from another physician authorized by health authorities to make such a judgment.

If doctors fail to follow this procedure, believing the woman is in "imminent danger," the law still lets them escape punishment, provided health authorities are informed of the abortion within 24 hours. The criminal code also allows judges to reduce the penalty to a small fine or three days in prison if the abortion was carried out because of "severe distress" not including a risk of physical or mental harm.

Doctors in cities such as Zurich, Geneva and Lausanne all traditionally Protestant, with more liberal views on abortion were the first to take advantage of the vague wording of the law and began offering more access to abortions in the 1970s.

The country's mainly Roman Catholic cantons started easing the interpretation in the 1980s, but three still interpret the law strictly.

Swiss federal authorities say it is time for the law to catch up with reality. In an interview with the Lausanne daily 24 Heures, Health Minister Ruth Dreifuss called the current rules a humiliation. She said it was unfair to force a woman "to go to a psychiatrist to get a certificate showing she is suffering from mental illness or severe depression which is what she often needs to get the authorization."

The referendum was forced by an anti-abortion coalition using a constitutional provision allowing voters to challenge acts of parliament. It targets a 2001 decision by lawmakers to decriminalize abortion. Abortion opponents gathered 160,000 signatures calling for a referendum more than three times the number needed and added their own tougher proposal as an alternative.

Under the law passed by parliament, which will take effect only if upheld in the referendum, abortion will remain an offense with the same prison terms. But terminations will go unpunished if carried out in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

The new law still would require women to present a written request, prove they face "distress" if they have a child, and meet with their doctor in the presence of a counselor. But the doctor would no longer need to seek a second opinion.

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