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HEALTH

Reader question: Is abortion legal in Switzerland?

An apparent change in decades-old US abortion law has put additional scrutiny on abortion rights around the world. Here’s what you need to know about abortion in Switzerland.

Switzerland allows abortion until the 13th week. Photo: Gayatri Malhotra/Unsplash
Abortion is legal per choice within the first three months in Austria - but very expensive. Photo: Gayatri Malhotra/Unsplash

A leaked document released earlier this week claims that the US Supreme Court is now in favour of overturning a landmark 1973 ruling, called Roe v Wade, that made abortion legal across the United States. 

Abortion is legal in Switzerland, although you will need a consultation with a doctor. 

The procedure is relatively uncommon in Switzerland, where the abortion rate was 5.4 per 1,000 women of child-baring age in 2020. This compares to 8.7 for foreign residents in Switzerland. 

The rate per 1,000 women is much higher abroad, at 19 in Sweden, 17 in the UK, 16 in France and 16 in the US. 

Switzerland defines ‘child-baring’ age as between the ages of 15 and 44. 

What are the rules for abortion in Switzerland? 

In Switzerland, the law was changed in 2002 to allow for abortions within a certain time period. 

Abortion is permitted if it takes place in the first 12 weeks of the pregnancy, which Swiss law measures as starting on the date of the woman’s last period. 

This means that both medical and surgical abortions are permitted in Switzerland, with medical abortions taking place until the eighth week and surgical interventions taking place from the ninth week onwards. 

Under Swiss law, a woman is required to have an in depth discussion with a doctor where she will be advised of her options, although the decision remains that of the woman rather than the medical professional. 

This discussion must be confirmed in writing. 

The woman will also receive a list of agencies which can provide additional information and support. 

The costs of an abortion – which can be in the thousands of francs – are covered by Switzerland’s basic insurance cover. 

The law is the same in all regions of Switzerland, although some communes may not have adequate facilities. 

What about people under 18?

Women under 18 can have an abortion without parental consent, provided a doctor judges that the woman has the capacity to understand and therefore consent to the procedure. 

If the woman is deemed too young to have the capacity, consent of her legal representatives – in most cases her parents – will be required. 

Most sexual and reproductive health centres can provide tailored advice to adolescents and minors. 

Are there any exceptions to the 12-week rule? 

Abortions can take place from the 13th week onwards only in exceptional circumstances. 

This will be possible in the case of serious illnesses or disabilities, or where a doctor recommends the termination of the pregnancy for the purposes of physical or mental health for the woman. 

There is no end date for when abortions will no longer be allowed, but it is ultimately a question of risk. 

What are the rules for emergency contraception, i.e. the ‘morning after pill’, in Switzerland? 

Emergency contraception is available at most Swiss pharmacies without a prescription, however you will need a consultation with a doctor or a family planning clinic before you receive it. 

If these centres are not open, you can also receive the consultation and the pill at a hospital. 

It will cost up to 60 francs depending on a variety of factors, including your age, healthcare status and the rules in place in your canton of residence. 

Like abortion, there are no minimum age requirements, although if your doctor believes you cannot form consent you will need the consent of your parents or legal guardian. 

If you would like to speak to a sexual health expert about reproductive rights in an anonymous fashion, contact Sante here. 

Glossary

The termination of a pregnancy is known as abortion in English, Abtreibung/Schwangerschaftsabbruch in German, avortement in French and aborto in Italian. 

Emergency contraception is Notfallverhütung (German), la contraception d’urgence (French) or contraccezione d’emergenza (Italian). 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Anti-abortion activists in Switzerland are just posturing with latest hollow move

As women’s reproductive rights are on the verge of being drastically eroded in the United States, Switzerland is witnessing the launch of two parallel popular initiatives seeking to restrict access to abortion here, writes Clare O'Dea.

OPINION: Anti-abortion activists in Switzerland are just posturing with latest hollow move

This is pure posturing by anti-abortion activists. It is obvious they can’t win the popular vote – the last time there was a vote on abortion in 2014, 80 per cent voted to leave the current regime unchanged – but Swiss campaigners still want to remind the public of their dissent. 

If they hurt women along the way, perhaps that’s acceptable collateral damage for them. Or perhaps that’s the whole point. The initiatives were launched together in December 2021 and the signature gathering deadline is in June 2023.   

All these campaigners achieve by dragging abortion onto the public agenda is piling additional stress and guilt on women who are going through a personal, in some cases heartbreaking, healthcare dilemma. Perhaps the rationale is that this extra pressure would have a deterrent effect. 

Switzerland was one of the first European countries to legislate for abortion in 1937, allowing abortion when the woman’s health was in danger. The cantons were free to decide how strictly to interpret the law and this led to a patchwork of abortion services across the country. 

Women ended up needing to travel inside the country to access abortion right up to 2002 when voters accepted the new abortion law allowing unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The law set conditions for abortions after this point. 

Reader question: Is abortion legal in Switzerland?

The first of the two initiatives is the ‘Save viable babies’ campaign to stop late-term abortions unless the mother’s life is in danger. This would apply to pregnancies from 22 weeks gestation where the foetus could potentially survive outside the womb with medical support. 

The second one is the blandly named ‘Sleep on it’ initiative, seeking to impose a one-day waiting period before allowing women and girls to access abortion treatment. Both sets of signatures are being collected together “for synergy reasons”. 

Three Swiss People’s Party (SVP) parliamentarians are behind the campaigns, including two women, Andrea Geissbühler and Yvette Estermann. They got nowhere in parliament with similar proposals which is why they are taking them to the people. No political party supports either initiative. 

Of the total of some 11,000 pregnancy terminations performed in Switzerland each year, approximately 95 per cent are carried out by the 12th week in accordance with the so-called time-limit regulations. 

Only a very small proportion of all terminations take place at an advanced stage of pregnancy. Some 150 terminations per year are performed after the 17th week of pregnancy. The ‘Save viable babies’ campaign is targeting pregnancies terminated from 22 weeks gestation onwards. There are an estimated 40 such cases per year. 

Just to be clear, the campaign wants the whole country to vote on the fate of 40 women per year going through a terrible personal crisis along with their distressed families. 

OPINION: Switzerland’s denial of voting rights to foreigners motivated by fear

The Swiss National Advisory Commission on Biomedical Ethics published an opinion on the practice of late termination of pregnancy in 2018. Here’s what they had to say about these 40 cases annually. 

“The reasons and circumstances underlying advanced pregnancy termination are many and varied. Almost always, the women concerned find themselves in a situation beyond their control, posing a moral dilemma. The need for a decision, and the consequences thereof, can have a lasting impact on the women and their families. Accordingly, the primary ethical principle is that all options need to be jointly considered, with empathetic and careful support being provided for the people concerned.”

Those options include what is called palliative birth for babies with serious conditions who will die at birth or shortly afterwards. 

Guess what, collecting signatures for 18 months for a popular initiative banning late term abortions is the opposite of empathetic support. It exacerbates the suffering involved. But this is a mindset where nothing is more important than the life of the foetus, least of all the parents’ suffering. 

The number of abortions carried out in advanced pregnancy has remained virtually unchanged over the last ten years. Forty out of 11,000 is not very many, but the fact that these situations arise every year represents a sad fact of life. 

EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?

Meanwhile the ‘Sleep on it’ initiative seeks to introduce a one-day wait between contacting a doctor and receiving the treatment. In three-quarters of cases this means a prescription for abortion pills. 

The one-day wait seems like a spurious and hollow demand. It is normal to think before you go to the doctor for any procedure. I have no doubt that when a woman asks a doctor for an abortion, she has already thought about it – for days if not weeks. She doesn’t need to go through an extra sleepless night to satisfy anyone.   

We know that the best way to reduce the number of abortions is either to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies – through information and services – or to significantly improve the material situation of women, for example income, housing, safety or job security. These factors already contribute to Switzerland’s low abortion rate

But the anti-abortion activists famously concentrate on the least effective tool – banning abortion or making access difficult. 

As an Irish citizen born in the 1970s, I came of age in a country that enshrined the right to life of the unborn in the constitution in 1983, which is what the ‘Save viable babies’ initiative seeks to do. That constitutional ban took a terrible toll on Irish women and girls for 35 years until it was repealed.  

This constitutional ban affected not only abortion services but maternal care in Ireland, with unnecessary suffering and risks imposed on miscarrying women by doctors afraid of breaking the law, as is now being seen in Poland.  

What we know about Swiss abortion is that it is safe, legal and rare. In an imperfect world, this is as good as it gets, no matter what the purists say.

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