Centre for Cultures of Reproduction, Technologies and Health

Abortion as political bate in Norway

CORTH Blog: 30 May 2019

Marte E. S. Haaland

PhD-candidate at the Centre for International Health, University of Bergen Norway
Visiting PhD-researcher at CORTH
Contact: marte.haaland@uib.no

In 2018, feminists celebrated the 40 years anniversary of the Norwegian abortion law of 1978. For 40 years, there had been broad political agreement on the law that had been left untouched. Little did they know that only a few months later, abortion would again become the key issue of Norwegian politics. This blog post tells the story of how women’s bodies became once again the battleground for political disputes in Norway.

When the Norwegian abortion law was passed, in 1978, it was after many years of political mobilization and public debate. The law was a great victory for Norwegian women’s rights movement and replaced a system of abortion committees, in which abortion-seeking women had to present their cases to a committee that would reach a decision based on a series of medical, economic and social criteria. With the new law, abortion became available upon demand for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.  The committee system was, however, continued for abortions between weeks 12 and 18. The law was thus a compromise between those pushing for increased bodily autonomy for women and those in favour of abortions being granted upon pre-determined criteria.

When abortion in 2018 re-emerged at the centre of the political game in Norway, it was one of the criteria for abortion after week 12 that was debated.  From November 2018 to January 2019, abortion overshadowed almost all other political issues, not because of any changes in political support towards the abortion law, nor due to a particularly challenging abortion request, but because of an unrelated power struggle in Norwegian politics.

Abortdemo3Demonstration in defence of the abortion law in Bergen, November 2018 under the slogan “Women’s bodies are not up for negotiation – Defend the abortion law"

After the 2017 election, Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg from the Conservative party formed a minority government with her far right partners in the populist Progressive party and the Liberal party. The coalition depended on case-to-case support from Christian Democrats to approve budgets and other key issues debated in parliament. In the elections, the Christian Democrats obtained only 4 % of the votes, but their eight seats in parliament were enough to tip the scales for Solberg’s government. When the party, in the fall of 2018 went to a process of selecting new political directions, which possibly could move them further apart from the government, Solberg seized the occasion to use the abortion law as political bate. In an effort to tempt the Christian Democrats into government, or at least to encourage them to stay as a case-to-case supporter, she publically stated that she was open to discuss changes to the abortion law. For the first time in decades, the consensus the law was built on was shaking.

Solberg and her allies suggested changes to the criteria that committees use for making decisions about abortions after week 12 of pregnancy. Echoing a human rights discoursed employed by anti-abortion activists across the world, Solberg, and the Christian Democrats used ideas of discrimination against foetuses with Down’s syndrome to argue for removal of the clause that allows abortions when there is a risk that the foetus may be severely ill, due to genetic conditions, illness or harms caused during pregnancy. Despite statics revealing that Down’s syndrome alone is rarely a motivation for abortion, the clause was referred to as the Down’s-paragraph. Furthermore, they wanted to remove the possibility of foetal reduction in cases of multiple pregnancies.

While pro-choice activists, internationally, have framed abortion as a human rights issue since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, the strategy has become increasingly common also among those advocating for stricter regulations of abortions. Imagery of children with Down’s syndrome have been used in anti-choice campaigns across the world, independent of the actual numbers of abortions motivated by detection of Down’s syndrome. As a researcher following abortion debates elsewhere in the world, I could see similarities between the arguments used by high ranking politicians in Norway, and anti-choice activists in i.e. Argentina where pictures of babies with Down’s syndrome were used to argue against the legalization of abortion altogether.

The suggestions were, however, highly unpopular. People took to the streets to defend the abortion law, shouting the same slogans used by the feminist movements in the 1970s. Newspapers wrote about abortions every day and TV-shows debated the abortion issues from a variety of different perspectives. Hundreds of op-eds urged Norwegian women not to take their rights for granted and to fight the suggested amendments to the abortion law.  

The Christian Democrats did eventually join the government coalition in January 2019. Although the clause about severe foetal illness was not changed, the negotiations did conclude on banning the practice of foetal reductions in which a woman pregnant with multiple foetuses can choose to reduce the number of babies she carries to term. This decision was supported by the new leader of the Christian Democrats who in a debate stated that “If you can manage one, you can manage two”. While the clause about severe foetal illness was kept in place, the Christian Democrats, with their 4% of the votes, managed to veto the planned revision of the law on biotechnology that would expand reproductive possibilities to include the possibility for single women to freeze and store eggs, or for egg donations.

This winter’s political turmoil in Norway is a story about how a small party with limited public support got to determine reproductive possibilities for all women in Norway. It show just how easily reproduction can be used as a piece in a political struggle to stay in power at the expense of women in painful situations. The massive mobilization it caused, however, also tells a story about men and women standing up for reproductive rights and learning not to take them for granted.

Photo: Torill Jørgensen Frøise