The right to abortion both threatened and defended

2017-02-15 11:44

At the same time as President Trump enacts laws that make it harder for women to have an abortion in the US and the world, the Swedish Labour Court is getting ready to rule on the so-called ‘midwife case’. The right to abortion is once again in the line of fire, but the defence is strong.

A ruling in favour of the midwife and her legal representative, Ruth Nordström, would be quite a big deal, according to Lena Lennerhed, professor of history of ideas at Södertörn University.

– It would have serious consequences. I don’t think we are able to foresee the full impact of it. That type of ruling can pave the way for similar rulings in other cases, including in other occupational groups, she says.

As a researcher, Lena Lennerhed studies the history of the right to abortion in Sweden. She says that the resistance has varied over the years.

– Every once in a while, somebody tries to tamper with the right to abortion. It has been like that ever since the right was introduced in 1975, she says.

At the moment, the debate concerns the possible introduction of a so-called conscience clause. As for the midwife case under way in Sweden, the issue concerns whether a midwife should have the right to refuse to perform or participate in certain job tasks, such as abortions, administration of emergency contraceptive pills and insertion of IUDs. In the past, abortion opponents have wanted to reduce the abortion time limit or mandate counselling sessions for women requesting an abortion.

– The resistance as such is not new. If the Swedish Labour Court rules in favour of the midwife, it will be a unique event in Swedish abortion right history, but I don’t think it will happen, says Lena Lennerhed.

Court case with links to US organisation

When the ‘midwife case’ was dealt with in district court in 2015, the court ruled in favour of the hospitals that had denied the woman employment. The court found that the behaviour could not be considered discrimination. The case is handled by Ruth Nordström, a lawyer who is also the CEO of Provita, a foundation that wants to limit the right to abortion. There are also links between the court case and a US organisation called Alliance Defending Freedom, according to an investigation by Swedish national radio (SR) in January. The organisation assists for example by covering all court costs. The link does not surprise Lena Lennerhed.

– That was actually to be expected, but it’s important that it becomes clear that the case has links to Alliance Defending Freedom and that this whole thing is not just about an individual midwife, she says.

According to SR’s investigation, the Swedish court case is part of an international campaign aiming to influence the right to abortion in Europe.

– This shows that the international anti-abortion movement is well organised and has a lot of money, says Lena Lennerhed.

Increased resistance against abortion in President Trump’s footsteps

Lena Lennerhed believes that the resistance against abortion in the US may increase with President Trump in the White House. One of Trump’s first moves as a president was to stop all government funding of abortion clinics. He has also cancelled all US aid to organisations that disseminate information about abortion. Moreover, he has nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. If the US Senate approves the nomination, the Supreme Court will have a conservative majority, which Lena Lennerhed says may affect the right to abortion. Neil Gorsuch has not previously been involved in any abortion cases, but is considered an abortion opponent.

The development in the United States does not affect just Americans, as it can also influence decisions made in other countries, says Lena Lennerhed.

– When the world’s most powerful country chooses to introduce restrictions, it legitimises similar changes elsewhere.

She sees a new type of abortion resistance emerging in Europe and the US – a nationalistically tainted resistance that is growing hand in hand with the advancements of populist right-wing groups.

– I’m afraid we’re going to see increasing rhetoric based on the view that women should bear many, and the right type of, children to benefit the nation, she says.

She adds that the development is not entirely straightforward, however. The right to abortion is debated intensely internationally and it is difficult to see clearly in which direction we are moving.

-The debate is really all over the place right now, she says.

‘Protests from grass roots to government level’

The day after Trump was appointed president, millions of people attended a Women’s March, an international initiative to defend women’s right to abortion, among other things. Over 600 demonstrations were held around the world, according to the Women’s March headquarters in Washington. In Sweden, thousands of people marched from central Stockholm to the US embassy.

Many leading politicians are criticising Trump and his policies. For example, the Dutch government has encouraged other countries to increase their support of the organisations that will lose money due to President Trump’s cancelling of aid to actors that disseminate information about abortion. The Swedish government has responded to the initiative. Isabella Lövin, Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate, wrote in a comment that the Swedish government is discussing with governments around the world ‘how we can increase the political and financial support of these issues together.

– We see resistance against President Trump all the way from the grass roots to government level, says Lena Lennerhed.

The international protests may prove effective, she believes. She points to last year’s international mobilisation against the proposition in Poland to make the national abortion legislation more restrictive. Following large demonstrations and criticism from the UN, the Parliament ended up voting against the proposition.

–  This shows that it can pay off to protest and picket in the streets, she says.

Despite the ongoing midwife case in Sweden, she does not believe that the right to abortion is under serious threat in the country.

– I really don’t think it’s possible to win this type of case here. I believe we have reason to be optimistic, but of course we need to follow the developments closely, she says.

Author Charlie Olofsson, translated by Debbie Axlid.
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