Abortion in Norway
Norway’s abortion law allows for abortion on request in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. If a pregnant woman wants to terminate the pregnancy after the 12 weeks have passed, final approval of termination must be given by an abortion committee consisting of two physicians, where one must be a gynecologist. The abortion committees are located in hospitals across the country. Women who want to reduce the number of fetuses they are carrying must also meet with an abortion committee, even if the decision is made before the 12-week mark. The abortion committee weighs the woman’s reasons for terminating the pregnancy between week 12 and 21, and the farther along she is, the weightier the reasons for terminating must be. The abortion committee must find grounds for which to approve the termination, which can be found in §2 of the Abortion Law, section a-e, which reads:
After the end of the twelfth week of pregnancy, termination of pregnancy can occur when
a) the pregnancy, birth or care of the child can lead to unreasonable strain on the woman's physical or mental health. It must be taken into account whether she has a predisposition for illness;
b) the pregnancy, birth or care of the child can put the woman in a difficult life situation;
c) there is a great risk that the child may develop a serious illness, as a result of hereditary predispositions, illness or harmful influences during pregnancy;
d) she became pregnant under circumstances as mentioned in the Penal Code, or the pregnancy is a result of circumstances as mentioned in the Penal Code; or
e) she is severely mentally ill or developmentally disabled to a significant degree.
The law does not allow for abortions if the fetus is viable, which the current legislation sets at 21 weeks.
About 95% of abortions take place before week 12, and only around 5% of abortion applications are processed by an abortion committee. Most abortions happen before week 9. In fact, in 2020 over 84% of on-request abortions took place before week 9. Of the abortion applications processed by the various abortion committees, over 87% were approved.
The legality of abortion and its practice in Norway has been shifting over time. Whereas abortion and placement of unwanted newborn children in the woods were common practices in Medieval Norway, the entrance of Christianity introduced a ban on abortion and its similar practices. In 1687, the first official abortion law came into effect. Women who aborted were penalized with capital punishment. This law was in effect until 1842, when it was replaced with penal labor and eventually imprisonment in 1889. Between 1902 and 1964, there were cases where doctors could terminate pregnancies within certain limits, such as if the continuation of the pregnancy endangered the woman’s life. In these years, illegal abortions still took place, and pioneers such as Katti Anker Møller and Karl Evang established practices and worked to give women access to contraceptives, sexual education and advise in case they wanted to terminate a pregnancy. In 1964 Norway got its first more liberal abortion law. Women could now present their case to an abortion committee. The termination could be granted on medical, ethical, or eugenic grounds, and it was the committee that made the final decision. Abortion was decriminalized in 1975 and the committees persisted but now also had to take the woman’s social conditions into account. In 1978, Norwegian women were granted the right of abortion on request up until week 12.
The Abortion Law remained largely untouched until 2014, when the government led by Prime Minister Erna Solberg proposed that general practitioners should have the right to reserve themselves from referring women for abortions. The proposition met massive opposition and the solution became to eliminate the step of women having to go through their GP for abortions all together; rather they can contact the hospital directly.
The proposed legislation in 2014 opened the door to further use abortion as a political bargaining ship. In the fall of 2019, Erna Solberg proposed further restrictions in the abortion law to gain political support. She proposed to remove §2c from the abortion law, the clause allowing for abortions after week 12 in case of severe fetal malformations, in order to strengthen the government with inviting the Christian Democratic Party to join the coalition.
This too met massive protests and demonstrations in many Norwegian cities, as well as from prominent politicians in Erna Solberg’s own Conservative Party. The result became the first tightening of the Abortion Law, that had been left untouched since 1978. From June 2020, women must apply for permission from the abortion committee to abort one or more fetuses during a multiple pregnancy. The government fails in further restricting women’s rights.
The debate about the removal of abortion committees is one that resurfaces at uneven intervals. It was a heated debate in the spring of 2021, where the focus swiftly shifted to a debate about the morality of abortions after week 12, rather than a debate focused on knowledge and the experiences of women having late-term abortions. After the parliamentary election of 2021, the government-forming parties, the Labor Party and the Center Party, established in their government platform that they will appoint a committee to examine abortion practices and alternatives to the current abortion committees in Norway. As of February 2022, the nomination process of members of this committee is in the early stages. It is expected that the appointed committee will be formed in the spring of 2022.
Written by: Tilla Solli for The Women's Museum of Norway
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