He was fined € 3,000 ($ 3,650) last month for sharing details about the type of abortion he offers, as well as the legal requirements for accessing it on his website.
Merchel’s conviction and the prosecution of several other doctors for the same offense have sparked protests in Germany and renewed debate over the country’s approach to dismissal.
Abortions are governed by the German penal code. They are allowed up to 12 weeks pregnant, but people requesting the procedure must attend a mandatory counseling session, which is followed by a mandatory three-day waiting period. After 12 weeks, interruptions are only allowed in certain exceptions, for example if the pregnancy or childbirth poses a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother.
But the law does not only regulate the procedure itself. It also prevents abortion providers from publicly sharing any information about it. Until 2019, the law even prohibited doctors from disclosing the fact that they performed abortions. Now they can say it, but once they do, they are prohibited from sharing anything else.
“I can only say one sentence: ‘I am terminating the pregnancy if [the patient] obey the law, “but I don’t have to say anything more,” Merchel told CNN.
Another doctor who was also convicted for posting information about abortion on her website said she was concerned that patients couldn’t find the facts they needed to make an informed decision.
“The specialists – the doctors – had to suppress their information, which means that now it’s mostly just anti-abortion sites that can be found on the Internet,” Dr Kristina Haenel told CNN in an e- mail. “I want to be able to inform my patients about the different methods, their advantages and disadvantages, possible complications and risks – such as [World Health Organization] recommended.”
Haenel was fined € 6,000 ($ 7,320) in 2017 and has since embarked on a journey through the German justice system with the ultimate goal of having the ban overturned. She appealed the verdict and filed a complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany.
“I don’t think the [law] is consistent with our constitution, “she told CNN in an email.” Women today need to be able to access detailed, factual information – I can’t hide information from you on a topic that affects your body and your health. “
Other advocates say Germany’s way of regulating abortion information is unique among Western democracies. Leah Hoctor, regional director of the Center for Reproductive Rights for Europe, describes it as “very problematic and extremely harmful”.
“The idea that a European country is in fact criminalizing the provision of medically accurate information on abortion, but failing to effectively regulate and crack down on misleading and inaccurate information is simply absurd,” she said. .
Hoctor added that the Center for Reproductive Rights believes the law not only contradicts World Health Organization guidelines, but also international human rights standards and Germany’s obligations under international treaties. .
But anti-abortion activists see it differently. Alexandra Linder, president of the Federal Association for the Right to Life, said her organization opposed any changes in the law. She disagrees with the idea that an abortion is a medical procedure, saying “abortion is not a health service”.
Lindner says there is no shortage of information in Germany, pointing out that state-approved providers of compulsory pre-abortion counseling also provide details on the procedure. “The only reason to offer abortion on an abortion institution’s website is to make money from it,” she told CNN via email.
“Someone has to do it”
Merchel has been practicing as a gynecologist for 28 years. He is based in the small town of Nottuln, less than an hour’s drive from the Dutch border.
“I’m just a normal gynecologist, doing everything a gynecologist in Germany does,” he said. “And I have been practicing medical termination of pregnancy with tablets since it became possible in Germany around  years ago.”
The Merchel website details all of the different procedures and services it provides. After the law was changed in 2019, he also added a line saying his practice offers abortions. And that’s where the problems started.
Someone alerted the authorities. Merchel was tried and convicted. He said he did not intend to pay the fine because he did not agree with the verdict. He is still discussing the next steps with his lawyer.
Yet around 100,000 women opt for an abortion in Germany each year. Merchel and Haenel say it’s critical to make sure they can access it safely.
“The problem is the law and the problem is also our system,” Merchel said. Although abortion is allowed in Germany, its access is also somewhat limited.
One of the reasons is the fact that around a third of German hospitals are run by Christian charities and nonprofits that do not perform abortion because of their beliefs. Doctors can invoke conscientious objection against dismissals.
The stigma surrounding abortion, Merchel says, means that even many medical professionals are still hesitant to discuss it.
“Everyone knows someone has to do it because it’s necessary, but they don’t want to talk about it,” he said, adding that the lack of information can be a particular problem when causes unnecessary delays. “The woman should have all the information she needs on time, so that when she does, it’s not week 11, but week seven when she has the hiatus, because over time , the procedure is more difficult. “
Support … and “disgusting” abuse
On the day of his sentencing, Merchel found crowds of supporters protesting the law in court. “I only had [a] positive feedback, “he said.” People say, ‘You should keep going, we’ll help you.’ Even the elderly, women who [have been my patients] for 25 years and never knew I was terminating my pregnancy. They all say it’s okay. It is not the right law. “
Haenel also said he received “tremendous support and encouragement” from patients, individuals and groups campaigning for the law to be changed. But she has also received multiple threats from those who oppose abortions.
“They wish me death and write me disgusting emails,” she said. Since she became one of the faces of the German abortion rights movement, the abuse has increased.
She has been called “degenerate” and “child killer” and, on one website in particular, compared to Nazi henchmen in concentration camps.
Haenel took legal action against the site’s owner, an anti-abortion activist. The court ruled that comparing abortion to the Holocaust was not acceptable. But he also said that to say that Haenel had “blood on his hands” fell under the right to free speech.
The German Federal Constitutional Court is due to render a decision shortly on Haenel’s case, ruling on the compatibility of the ban on providing information on abortion with the country’s constitution.
She is full of hope. On an appeal in 2018, the judge who sentenced her told her that she should “pass judgment as an honorary title in the fight for a better law.”