The Swiss people have voted to decriminalise abortion in two referendums called to decide whether to liberalise the country’s 66-year-old law, or toughen it further.
Final results from one referendum show that 72% of voters have backed a parliamentary measure to allow abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
In the other, 82% of voters rejected a proposal by anti-abortion groups to toughen Switzerland’s already strict abortion laws.
Justice Minister Ruth Metzler said the changes would come into force in October.
“I think the key elements were the woman’s rights to choose and the decriminalisation for women, where we see a broad consensus in the country,” Ms Metzler said.
Under Switzerland’s existing abortion law, which dates back to 1937, a woman who performs her own abortion or who lets it be performed, is subject to up to five years’ imprisonment and a heavy fine.
However, the official ban on abortion has been widely ignored in all but the most conservative regions, and one in eight pregnancies in Switzerland already ends in abortion.
“This is a great victory for women in Switzerland,” said pro-choice campaigner Anne-Marie Rey of the result. She said women would no longer “feel criminalised” for terminating a pregnancy.
Pro-life groups have been pressing to have the law toughened even further, including a ban on abortions for women who have been raped.
No-one has been convicted in Switzerland under the existing law for more than 14 years.
Many cantons, or states, opt for a broad interpretation, allowing a woman to have an abortion not just if her health is at risk, but also if her social or economic situation is unstable.
However, in the Roman Catholic cantons the law is still upheld very firmly and a strict ban on pregnancy termination remains in force.
But even most of these regions voted in favour of the government proposals, with only Valais in the south and the tiny Appenzell Inner Rhodes rejecting them.
“We are extremely disappointed,” said Barbara Guepfert from Swiss Aid for Mother and Child.
“The unborn child will no longer be protected and women in a distressing situation will be on their own”.
Three previous attempts to change the law in the 1970s and 1980s were rejected by voters.
Revision date: July 8, 2011
Last revised: by David A. Scott, M.D.