Switzerland is a good example of how liberal abortion legislation is important, but not sufficient to guarantee access to abortion to all women.

In 1942, Switzerland was one of the first countries in Western Europe to legalize abortion for health reasons. Two doctors had to agree that the pregnancy held a great risk of severely and lastingly damageing the health of the woman. Soon doctors began interpreting the law very differently, some including broad mental health reasons for legal abortion, others accepting only vital indications. Practice differed also greatly between cantons (counties). „Abortion tourism“ was flourishing from conservative cantons and from other countries to liberal cantons like Geneva or Zurich.

Over the decades abortion practice was liberalized in ever more cantons, an evolution speeded up by political campaigns and lobbying from 1971 onwards.

In 2002 finally, the Swiss Union for Decriminalizing Abortion (Schweizerische Vereinigung für Straflosigkeit des Schwangerschaftsabbruchs / Union suisse pour décriminaliser l’avortement SVSS/USPDA), founded in 1973, succeeded in getting abortion on request within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (Fristenregelung / régime du délai) adopted in a referendum, by gorgeous 72,2% of the votes. Simultaneously, a constitutional amendment for a total abortion ban, proposed by the anti-abortionists, was defeated by 81,7%.

The new Swiss abortion legislation, in force as of 1st October 2002, is among the most liberal in the world:

  • Up to 12 weeks (from last menstrual period) the woman is free in her decision. She simply has to sign a request form stating that she finds herself in a „state of distress“. The doctor has to give her all the information and counselling needed for her decision and hand her out a leaflet containing addresses where she might get additional counselling, financial and moral support and information about adoption.

    • no compulsory 2nd opinion or counselling needed any more

    • no compulsory „cooling off period“

    • no parental consent necessary for competent minors (under 16 year olds must have additional counselling)

  • Late abortions (after 12 weeks) are allowed for health reasons, including the risk of severe mental distress, without the need of a second medical opinion and without time limit. The risk has to be all the more severe as pregnancy proceeds.

  • Cantons have to designate clinics and doctors authorized to perform abortions.

Seven years later, we can say the new legislation had many positive effects. Abortion has become a woman’s right. The procedure is available in all regions in a large number of facilities, abortion tourism has practically disappeared. Appointments can be obtained very quickly. Over 70% of abortions are done in the first 8 weeks of pregnancy (from last menstrual period), and 57% of total abortions are done by the medication method.

Yet some problems pervail, as has been confirmed by two enquiries among familiy planning centers and hospitals done in 2008 and 2009 by APAC-Suisse (a group of abortion doctors in Switzerland):

  • Not all abortion methods are available:

    • Except at very few places, suction abortion is always done under general anesthesia, local anaesthesia being unavailable.

    • Second trimester abortions are almost exclusively done by medical induction methods (mifepristone + misoprostol). Surgical abortion is practically unavailable after 14 weeks.

  • Access to abortion for „severe mental distress“, as allowed by law, is very restricted after 14 weeks gestation. After 16 weeks, abortion is more or less limited to severe physical health reasons or fetal abnormality. Doctors are not making use of their discretionary power in interpreting the law. For this reason, there still exists some „abortion tourism“ of Swiss women in need of second trimester abortions to other countries.

Doctors in Switzerland need more training in different abortion techniques and in awareness of women’s problems and of their need, sometimes, for later abortions in case of mental distress.

For the history of pro choice campagning in Switerland see:

Anne-Marie Rey

“Die Erzengelmacherin – das 30-jährige Ringen um die Fristenregelung”

Xanthippe Verlag, Zürich, 2007