He was fined € 3,000 ($ 3,650) last month for sharing details about the type of abortion he offers and the legal requirements for accessing his website.
The conviction of Merchel and the indictment of several other doctors for the same crime sparked protests in Germany and revived the debate about the country’s course of action in the event of layoffs.
Abortions are regulated in the German Criminal Code. They are allowed up to the 12th week of pregnancy, but people who want the procedure must take part in a mandatory consultation, which is followed by a mandatory three-day waiting period. After 12 weeks, termination is only permitted in exceptional cases, for example if pregnancy or childbirth poses a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother.
But the law doesn’t just regulate the procedure itself. It also restricts abortion providers from sharing information about it publicly. Until 2019, doctors were legally prohibited from disclosing even the fact that they were performing abortions. Now they can say that, but once they do they are forbidden to share anything else.
“I can only say one sentence: ‘I’ll do an abortion when [the patient] follows the law, but I’m not allowed to say anything more, “Merchel told CNN.
Another doctor, who was also convicted for posting information about abortions on her website, said she was concerned that patients would not be able to find the facts they need to make an informed decision.
“The specialists – the doctors – had to remove their information, which means that now it’s mostly the anti-abortion sites that are on the Internet,” said Dr. Kristina Haenel in an email to CNN. “I would like to be able to educate my patients about the various methods, their advantages and disadvantages, possible complications and risks – because the [World Health Organization] recommends. “
Haenel was fined 6,000 euros ($ 7,320) in 2017 and has since embarked on a trip through the German judicial system to lift the ban. She appealed against the ruling and lodged a complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court.
“I don’t think that [law] is in line with our constitution, “she told CNN in an email.” Women today need to be able to access detailed and factual information – I cannot withhold information from you on anything that affects your body or your health. “
Other proponents say the way Germany regulates abortion information is unique in Western democracies. Leah Hoctor, Regional Director of the Center for Reproductive Rights for Europe, describes it as “highly problematic and extremely harmful”.
“The idea that a European country is actually criminalizing the provision of medically correct information on abortion but not effectively regulating and preventing misleading inaccurate information is simply nonsensical,” she said.
Hoctor added that, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, the law contravenes not only 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, chairwoman of the Federal Right to Life Association, said her organization is against any change in the law. She disagrees with the idea that abortion is a medical procedure and says that “abortion is not a health benefit”.
There is no lack of information in Germany, says Lindner and points out that state-approved providers of mandatory pregnancy counseling before the termination of pregnancy also provide details on the procedure. “The only reason to advertise abortions on an abortion agency website is to make money out of it,” she told CNN via email.
“Somebody has to do it”
Merchel has been a gynecologist for 28 years. It is based in the small town of Nottuln, less than an hour’s drive from the Dutch border.
“I am a completely normal gynecologist and do everything that a gynecologist does in Germany,” he said. “And I’ve been doing a medical abortion with tablets since it became possible in Germany, for example  years ago.”
Merchel’s website describes all of the different procedures and services it offers. After changing the law in 2019, he also added a line stating that his practice provides for abortions. And that’s where the problems started.
Somebody alerted the authorities. Merchel was tried and convicted. He said he did not intend to pay the fine because he disagreed with the verdict. He discusses the next steps with his lawyer.
Nevertheless, around 100,000 women in Germany decide to have an abortion every year. Merchel and Haenel say it is important to make sure they can access it securely.
“The problem is the law and the problem is our system too,” Merchel said. In Germany, abortion is allowed, but access to it is somewhat restricted.
One reason for this is the fact that around a third of hospitals in Germany are run by Christian charities and non-profit organizations that do not perform abortions because of their beliefs. Doctors can appeal against the execution of dismissals for reasons of conscience.
The stigma of abortion, says Merchel, means that even many medical professionals are still reluctant to talk about it.
“Everyone knows someone has to do it because it is necessary, but they don’t want to talk about it,” he said, adding that the lack of information can be a particular problem when it causes unnecessary delays. “The woman should have all the information she needs in good time so that she is not fired in the 11th week, but in the seventh week, because over time it becomes 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 reaction, “he said.” People say, ‘You should go ahead, we will help you.’ Even the elderly, women who [have been my patients] for 25 years and never knew I was doing an abortion. Everyone says it’s okay. That is not the right law. “
Haenel also says she has received “tremendous support and encouragement” from patients, individuals, and groups advocating a change in the law. But she has also received several threats from these anti-abortionists.
“They wish me death and write me disgusting e-mails,” she said. Since she became one of the faces of the German abortion rights movement, the abuse has increased.
She was referred to as “degenerate” and “child murderer” and on a certain website she was compared to Nazi thugs in concentration camps.
Haenel took legal action against the site’s operator, an anti-abortion activist. The court ruled that comparing abortion to the Holocaust was not acceptable. But it also means that to say that Haenel has “blood on his hands” falls under the right to freedom of expression.
The Federal Constitutional Court is due to decide shortly on the Haenel case as to whether the ban on abortion information is compatible with the country’s constitution.
She is hopeful. During an appeal in 2018, the judge who sentenced her told her to “wear the verdict like an honorary title in the struggle for better justice.”