German Catholic bishops seek abortion compromise

 

Germany's Catholic bishops attempted yesterday to avoid a damaging split over abortion after the Pope criticised the church's involvement in state-funded pregnancy advice centres. Speaking at the start of a two-day meeting of the Bishops' Conference in Wurzburg, their chairman, Dr Karl Lehmann, said they would try to find a way to remain within the counselling system.

"The Pope did not directly dictate that we should leave," he said, referring to a letter the Pope sent to the bishops outlining his views on the issue. Abortion is officially illegal in Germany but women are allowed to terminate a pregnancy within the first three months on condition they attend a counselling session at a pregnancy advice centre. Counsellors are not allowed to recommend one course of action over another and all women who receive counselling are given a certificate which allows them to have an abortion if they choose.

The Catholic Church runs 270 of Germany's 1,700 state-funded pregnancy advice centres, counselling 20,000 women since 1997. The church claims that 25 per cent of those who attended their centres chose to continue their pregnancy for its full course.

But all those who attended received a certificate allowing them to have an abortion, a document that the conservative Bishop of Fulda, Dr Johannes Dyba, dubs a "licence to kill". Other conservative bishops argue that the church's involvement in the state's counselling network is inconsistent with its commitment to protecting the life of the unborn child from the moment of its conception.

In the Pope's letter to the 27 German bishops, which has not been published, he is understood to demand that the church stop issuing certificates that can be used to procure an abortion.

For its part, the German government has made it clear that it will cut off funding to any advice centre that refuses to issue the certificates.

Liberal bishops argue that if the church leaves the counselling system, it will be unable to reach pregnant women in trouble and a greater number will choose abortion. At least two bishops have threatened to resign if the conference decides to bow to the Pope's instructions.

Lay Catholics have offered to take over the church's role in the advice centres but Dr Lehmann said yesterday he hoped the bishops could find a solution that will not make such a step necessary.

"We don't want any tricks or manipulation. We want to find our own solution so that we can keep everyone on board.

"The Pope has not stipulated directly that we have to stop counselling pregnant women," he said.

But he added that the Pope had ordered a "modification" to the certificate which the Catholic Church provides.

Bishop Lehamnn did not specify what type of alteration had been suggested by the Pope but hinted it could be difficult to incorporate the change and make sure the certificates remained legally valid.