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?
Mariola O'Brien | 19 February 2014
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Ellinor Grimmark
Ellinor Grimark   Photo: Fredrik Persson / TT

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 practice.

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 Swedish national radio and mainstream newspapers she points out that many other countries solve this problem in the work place satisfactorily.

A 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 this.”

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 blog, Continuum Mama

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