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Swiss Referendum Eases Abortion Restrictions - 2002-06-02

Swiss voters have chosen to relax Switzerland's rules on abortion Sunday by backing a reform to decriminalize the termination of the fetus in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Swiss rules on abortion are more liberal than the virtual bans in Ireland and Poland, but tougher than laws in Britain and France.

Voters in Switzerland decided in a nationwide referendum that abortion should be decriminalized to a limited degree. The electorate also voted to reject a second proposal, presented by an anti-abortion coalition, to toughen the rules on abortion.

At least on the statute books, Switzerland had one of Europe's toughest anti-abortions laws. Doctors who carried out abortions could face prison sentences of five years, while women who had abortions could spend three years in jail.

Abortions had been permitted only if two licensed doctors agreed that a woman's life and health, including mental health, were in danger.

But some 12-13,000 women in Switzerland have abortions every year in regular clinics.

Justice Ministry spokesman Hans Klaus says the Swiss government acted in March 2001 to change the 60-year-old law, culminating in Sunday's vote. "The parliament and the government decided to have a solution with only 12 weeks, and within these 12 weeks, it is the decision of the woman herself to have an abortion or not," he said.

Under the new proposed law, abortion will remain an offense, with the same prison terms if carried out after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In order for the woman to have an abortion at that stage, there must be demonstrable risk to the woman's health.

Anti-abortion advocates say they were pressing to close the loopholes in Swiss law by banning abortion except in cases of what they termed as "imminent and physical danger" to the life of the pregnant woman in which no other solution was possible.

Midwife Brigit Jenni of the Swiss Aid for the Mother and Child group says those favoring abortion have sought to change the definition of what constitutes a women's state of health. "Health has become quite a fluid definition because it implies social well-being, physical well-being and psychological well-being," she said. "And now with the social part as well as the psychological part, there can be any reason to have an abortion, so nobody had anymore the courage to go to court ... because they knew they just could not get through because of these new definitions."

Swiss anti-abortion proponents say they want human life protected from the moment of conception. They say they also sought in Sunday's vote to provide more financial assistance to assist women facing unexpected pregnancies.