Swedish nurse takes a stand on conscience rights
If soldiers can object to using weapons, why can't health professionals
refuse to assist at abortions?
Mercatornet, 19 February, 2014
Reproduced with permission
In 2011, the European Council adopted a resolution that protects
healthcare workers' right to freedom of conscience regarding abortion and
euthanasia. Sweden has signed this agreement. But reality paints a different
picture. Out of the 47 member states in the European Council, Finland and
Sweden are the only two which do not uphold freedom of conscience in
Ellinor Grimmark, 37, is the first midwife in Sweden to
report a hospital to the Discrimination Ombudsman (DO) concerning
abortion. She claims to have been discriminated against on the basis of her
religious beliefs and moral convictions. Newly-graduated, she was fired from
her position last summer because she refused to assist abortions. Even
though there is a shortage of midwives at the moment, and even though she is
willing to take on double shifts, she has been denied a job ever since. One
employer had first agreed to hire her in spite of the "complication", but
withdrew the offer when her story began to spread in media.
Grimmark is being represented by attorney Ruth Nordström, CEO of
Pro Vita, a
foundation promoting human rights and dignity. Nordström
confirms that this is a human rights issue and says they have reported
Sweden to the European Council for breaking the law on nine counts. She
believes Grimmark has a good chance of winning her case in the European
Court of Human Rights.
Ellinor Grimmark says in a
statement to the newspaper Aftonbladet: "As a midwife, I want to
exercise a profession which defends life and saves lives at all cost. Are
healthcare practitioners in Sweden to be forced to take part in procedures
that extinguish life, at its beginning or final stages? Somebody has to take
the little children's side, somebody has to fight for their right to life. A
midwife described to me how she had held an aborted baby in her arms, still
alive, and cried desperately for an hour while the baby struggled to
breathe. These children do not even have a right to pain relief. I cannot
take part in this."
A hot debate has followed this incident and a
Facebook page has been created to support Grimmark. In interviews with
national radio and mainstream
newspapers she points out that many other countries solve this problem
in the work place satisfactorily.
televised debate made it clear that there is strong resistance to
adopting a conscience clause. The public's general reaction was to question
why Grimmark chose this profession in the first place. Her lawyer Ruth
Nordström clarified that a midwife's primary task is to deliver babies, not
to perform abortions. She also pointed out that it is a biological fact that
we are dealing with two individuals in the case of abortion: the mother and
the child. There is a hierarchy of values to consider in this case; an
abortion cannot be compared to other operations, such as removing an
appendix. To talk about a woman's right to her own body is to over-simplify
the issue. Twenty-three days after conception there is another heart beating
in the womb.
Paulina Neuding, the editor-in-chief of a magazine, drew attention to the
fact that the Swedish abortion law, which allows free abortion up to week 18
and in some cases week 22, is arbitrary. The fact that there are people
whose conscience cannot accept this slack restriction has to be respected.
"It is a question about life or not life, and we all think differently about
Both Nordström and Neuding agreed that some pregnant women would prefer
to have access to a midwife who does not also perform abortions,
particularly if they are Christians. This idea was extremely hard for the
moderator to grasp, and she asked them to explain what they meant. Catharina
Zätterström, board member of the Association of Midwives, who was
participating in the debate through video conferencing, actually laughed
when she heard them voice this concern. I can relate to such women, because
I am one of them. During my first pregnancy, I regularly took the train to
another city to see a midwife who runs her own clinic. I felt better knowing
that she didn't have aborted fetuses in her waste bin!
The reaction of Zätterström and others goes to show that the Swedish
people have a poor understanding of what conscience essentially is. It is
not a question of opinion or preferences. It is something much deeper than
that. Member of Parliament Mats Selander, one of the participants in the
debate, commented on this: "In our culture we have superficialised the
question of ethics and think that it is legitimate that the State overrides
people's consciences. This is a matter of life and death and the individual
must be respected." He reminded his listeners that Sweden grants exemptions
for those who wish to do military service but object to using weapons for
reasons of conscience.
Norway, a country comparable to Sweden in many ways, was brought up
several times in the debate. There, the right to freedom of conscience for
healthcare practitioners is upheld in fact and not just in theory.
The common argument against freedom of conscience in the case of abortion
in Sweden is, Who will then perform abortions, if nobody wants to? What if
all midwives refuse? Gunilla Gomér, chairman of the Swedish pro-life
organisation Ja till
Livet, answers this concern in a recent
interview: "What kind of medical care is this, if nobody wants to give
it? It is high time we drew attention to this."
The silence that normally surrounds the question of abortion in Sweden is
thick and powerful. Many people now hope that Grimmark's case will clear the
air and set a precedent for future cases. This way, midwifery will be opened
up to women who feel called to the profession, but whose conscience does not
allow them to terminate a life.
*Mariola O’Brien writes from Stockholm where she lives with her
Canadian husband and their children. This article was first published on her
This article is published by Mariola O'Brien and
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