Comparative Pragmatism versus Comparative Formalism in the Abortion Context

2 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2013 Last revised: 17 Nov 2017

Date Written: 2012


In recent years, with the increased internationalization of the judiciary, we have witnessed growing support from advocates, policymakers, and judges for applying international and foreign law in a domestic context. To be sure, U.S. courts have demonstrated greater reluctance toward this approach than many courts in other parts of the world. As Margaret Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, has noted, “justices of some foreign constitutional courts traverse the world of global jurisprudence with an agility that leaves an American judge breathless.” But what happens when judges, intending a comparative approach, incorrectly interpret foreign jurisprudence? And even when these judges get the law right, are they looking at the right thing when they focus on comparative law rather than comparative practice? Rachel Rebouché considers these complex questions concerning international and comparative law as she tracks important global developments in abortion law over the past few decades. Rebouché starts with a challenge to the conventional wisdom that U.S. abortion law symbolizes protection of women’s constitutional rights while German abortion law symbolizes protection of fetal constitutional rights. While that dichotomy may have been true when Mary Ann Glendon first described it in 1987, Rebouché argues, the United States and Germany have, in fact, moved in opposite directions concerning abortion law and practice and the availability of abortion services. Developments in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade have made the constitutional right to an abortion “unrealizable for many women due to restrictive state and federal laws and the absence of providers in many areas.” By contrast, abortion law and practice developments in Germany have gone in the opposite direction, expanding access to abortion, rather than limiting it in the interest of protecting fetal rights. Though a 1975 decision by the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany (“FCC”) supported protection for “unborn life,” more recent developments have prioritized access to abortion — a position that sounds in the register of women’s rights — above fetal rights. A 1993 FCC decision reiterated that abortion is an unlawful act, but eliminated criminal punishment upon demonstration of proof of counseling (which is readily available in most regions of Germany at counseling centers that tend to be pro-choice) before the twelfth week of pregnancy. Moreover, state welfare funds are available in cases of financial need, which is interpreted so generously by most regional legislatures that in some regions, the government pays for nearly every abortion. The broad availability of state-funded abortion services has led some commentators to argue that “Germany, in effect, permits abortion for any reason.” While the U.S. and German legal developments have had enormous influence on the constitutional decisions of national courts in Colombia, South Africa, Portugal, and Mexico, these latter national court decisions, Rebouché argues, have stopped short of engaging with the “implications and evolution of abortion jurisprudence in the United States and Germany.” More troublingly, these national court decisions have, at times, misinterpreted U.S. and German law.

Suggested Citation

Bettinger-Lopez, Caroline, Comparative Pragmatism versus Comparative Formalism in the Abortion Context (2012). Maryland Law Review, Vol. 72, p. 85, 2012, Available at SSRN:

Caroline Bettinger-Lopez (Contact Author)

University of Miami - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 248087
Coral Gables, FL 33146
United States
305-284-5923 (Phone)


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