Directed by : Alex Mayenfisch

Genre : Documentary

Duration : 50′

Year : 2008

Original version : French

A 30 years wait

An emblematic demand of the women’s emancipation movement since the late 60s, the right to abortion has given rise to passionate controversy and heated debate around irreconcilable positions.

In Switzerland, seven referendums, initiatives and petitions have repeatedly led the people to decide on this sensitive issue of personal conviction.

A political and social drama recounted from the archives of the Swiss Public Television.

1970 Articles 118 to 121 of the Swiss Penal Code – introduced in 1942 – prohibit abortion and provide for prison sentences for the woman who has an abortion, as well as for the person who helps her to have an abortion.

However, abortion is authorized if the mother’s health or life are in danger. At the request of the woman and her doctor, a commission or expert appointed by the cantonal authorities issues an authorization to terminate the pregnancy, known as an “avis conforme”. In some cantons, this clause is applied flexibly, taking into account the mother’s inability to bring up her child in good conditions (based on the WHO – World Health Organization – charter, which extends the concept of “health” to include psychological and social well-being). This is the case in Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel, Basel and Zurich, where 80% of these non-punishable abortions are performed.

However, out of ignorance, panic or because they don’t know the “right” doctor, many women resort to clandestine abortions – performed at abusive rates by so-called “angel makers” – with their share of complications and infections that can lead to death, not to mention women who, out of distress, try to terminate their pregnancies themselves (mustard bath, rinsing with soapy water, introduction of knitting needles…).

In Catholic cantons (FR, VS and Central Switzerland), legal abortion is not practiced. Women wishing to have an abortion must travel to another canton. Hence the term “gynecological tourism”.

It is estimated that 50,000 to 60,000 abortions are performed each year in Switzerland, of which 40,000 are illegal (60,000 to 80,000 in the 1930s…).

1971 The women’s emancipation movement, which developed in the wake of May 68 (mainly under the impetus of the MLF – Mouvement de Libération des Femmes), made access to contraception and the right to abortion one of its main demands, taking a prominent place in social debate and then on the political stage.

In France, the “Manifesto of the 343” published in Le Nouvel Observateur had a major impact: for the first time, women – including several cultural figures – declared that they had terminated a pregnancy (thereby exposing themselves to criminal prosecution) and demanded free abortion.

In Switzerland, it was a trial that brought the debate into the public arena: that of three well-known and highly-regarded doctors from Neuchâtel, who took responsibility for their actions by placing them in a political perspective denouncing the absurdities of current law. (107 women and 37 third parties were convicted of illegal abortion that year. The last conviction in Switzerland was in 1988).

In June 71, a (small) non-party committee – made up of people from right and left – launched a popular initiative “for the decriminalization of abortion”, which was submitted in December of the same year with 59,000 signatures.

1972 To counter this attempt at liberalization, the organization “Oui à la vie” (Yes to Life) was created, mainly from Catholic circles. In September, it submitted a petition entitled “Yes to life – no to abortion” to the Federal Chambers of Parliament, with 180,000 signatures.

1973 Supporters of liberalization found the Swiss Union for the Decriminalization of Abortion (USPDA).

1974 The Federal Council proposes three variants for a minor amendment to the Penal Code. On June 24, the Federal Councillor in charge, Christian Democrat Kurt Furgler, head of the FDJP, invoking the “conscience clause”, refuses to defend the project and withdraws from the dossier. He would later declare: “In my heart of hearts, I was ready to resign”.

1975 This is the year when the debate reaches its climax. The annual retrospective L’année CH 1975 writes: “Surely no debate in national life arouses such passionate controversy and such irreconcilable positions. Supporters and opponents clash in violent polemics and heated debates.”

In March, the National Council rejected the initiative “pour la décriminalisation” (unanimously minus 2 votes, those of socialists Jean Ziegler and Arthur Villard) as too liberal. None of the 8 women elected in 1971 following the introduction of women’s suffrage supported the initiative!)

In June, a new, more restrictive initiative, “pour une solution du délai”, is launched by the USPDA.

In October, a debate in the National Council is disrupted by MLF activists.

In France, the “Weil” law (named after Health Minister Simone Weil) decriminalizing voluntary interruption of pregnancy is passed.

1976 The initiative “pour la solution du délai” is successful. The first initiative “for decriminalization” is withdrawn.

1977 September 25, vote on the initiative “pour la solution du délai”. It was rejected by only 52% (but 17 cantons rejected it, as it would not have obtained a double majority).

The Federal Council then proposed an intermediate solution known as “social indications”. Supporters of free choice – who considered it too restrictive – and opponents – who rejected any liberalization – both opposed it in a referendum. 90,000 signatures were collected, a record for the time.

1978 May 28, vote on the “social indications” law. It was rejected by 69%.

1979 Parliament explores a new federalist solution. It would let the cantons decide on their own legislation. Seven years of fruitless debate.

Opponents of liberalization launch the “Right to Life” initiative. Although the text of the initiative does not explicitly state so, its aim is to ban abortion.

Founding of the Swiss Association for the Right to Abortion and Contraception (ASDAC) by feminist activists who consider the USPDA too timid.

1980 Submission of the “Right to Life” initiative with 230,000 signatures! (The law requires 50,000.)

1981 Parliament passed a law obliging the cantons to set up Pregnancy Advice Centres “with the aim of informing couples and enabling them to make their own decisions”.

Another unforeseen fact favored access to contraception: the appearance of AIDS in the mid-80s made condom use a health necessity, and the “Stop SIDA” campaign took to the streets.
In 20 years, the number of legal abortions has been reduced by 25%, while the number of illegal abortions has been divided by 10.

1985 June 9, vote on the “Right to Life” initiative. It was rejected by 69%.

From then on, the issue of abortion disappeared from Parliament’s agenda for almost ten years. The political majority was satisfied with the status quo.
The debate on liberalization is rekindled in the early 90s with the introduction of the RU486 abortion pill, which makes it possible to perform an abortion – under medical supervision – without surgery.

1993 Socialist National Councillor Barbara Haering Binder submits a parliamentary initiative entitled “Regime du délai” (co-signed by 62 MPs from 8 parties): this law would make abortion non-punishable during the first months of pregnancy.

At the same time, the “morning-after pill”, a contraceptive that can be used within 72 hours of sexual intercourse, appeared on the market.

1997 The bill on the “delay regime” is tabled: at the request of the woman and her doctor, abortion would be permitted during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

A minor revolution in Swiss politics: under pressure from the women’s party, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) – which had previously opposed any liberalization and included many anti-abortion activists – supported the principle of the “delay regime”.

1998 Parliament begins debate on the “delay regime” proposal. At the time, Switzerland was one of the last European countries – along with Ireland, Poland, Portugal and Spain – to impose a restrictive law on abortion.

For their part, opponents of liberalization launched the “Mother and Child” initiative. The initiative proposes to grant assistance to pregnant women in distress, but prohibits abortion – under any circumstances, even in cases of rape – unless the mother’s life is in danger, in accordance with Vatican doctrine.

1999 RU486 abortion pill authorized.
Submission of the “mother and child” initiative.

2001 After 4 years (!) of debate, the law on the “delay regime” is approved by the Federal Chambers. The only change from the initial draft was a reduction in the waiting period from 14 to 12 weeks.

The slowness of the debate was due to the intransigence of the CVP, which led to repeated back-and-forth between the National Council and the Council of States. The CVP demanded that, in addition to her doctor’s opinion, a woman wishing to have an abortion should undergo a second consultation in a specialized center.

In a minority, the PDC opposed the new law with a referendum (the first in its history), even though polls showed that 70% of the population approved of the law. The referendum was filed, but for the PDC it was a political failure: unable to gather the necessary 50,000 signatures on its own, it had to rely on the support of religious fundamentalists.

2002 June 2, vote on the federal “delay regime” law. Accepted by 72%. The “mother and child” initiative was rejected by 82%.

850,000 signatures were affixed to the seven initiatives, referendums and petitions that marked this process.

USPDA and ASDAC, which defended free choice, were dissolved in 2003. “Oui à la vie” is still active (“Choisir la vie” since spring 08).

Currently, between 10,000 and 10,500 operations are carried out each year. Switzerland has one of the lowest abortion rates in Europe: 6.8 abortions per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 44.


Directed and edited by : Alex Mayenfisch

Postproduction : Daniel Wyss

Music : Antoine Guex

Sound mix : Denis Séchaud

Narrator : Laurence Amy, Pascal Parizot

Archives and documentation RTS : Françoise Clément, Frédéric Henchoz

Production : Climage

Coproduction : Radio Télévision Suisse, Irène Challand, Gaspard Lamunière

© 2008 CLIMAGE – RTS

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