Climate change muddles Swedish abortion debate

The abortion issue, long largely dormant in the Swedish popular discourse, reemerged as a point of contention recently after researchers called for a review of legislation framed in the 1970s.

In an opinion article in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) daily entitled ”Time for society to broaden its view on abortion”, Nicolas Espinoza at the Stockholm Centre for Healthcare Ethics and Martin Peterson at Stockholm University announced a new research project to review the matter.

“The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was wrong when it pushed through an abortion law which is based on the thinking that a woman’s right to her body is almost always superior to that of the foetus,” the pair wrote.

The researchers argued that the “law must in the future reflect the complex problems around the abortion issue”, drawing comparisons with the climate change debate.

“If we strike a balance between the interests of current and future generations for the sake of the environment, then we should also strike a balance between the pregnant woman and the foetus.”

The researchers, who are both academics within the field of philosphy, propose that instead of what they argue is the “binary” view of existing legislation – divided into two distinct categories of “permitted” and “forbidden” – a third should be added.

According to Swedish abortion legislation passed in 1975, a woman is free to terminate a pregnancy up to and including the 18th week. She is not required to cite any reason for doing so and the public health system is required to carry out her wishes.

After 18 weeks until the end of the 22nd, an abortion can still be performed but requires permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) which is often granted on the basis of either the foetus or the woman suffering a serious medical complication.

After the 22nd week abortion is not permitted in Sweden.

Espinoza and Peterson in practice argue that this legal right to free and state-funded abortion be limited and seek a definition of cases where it ”should not be society’s duty to actively assist women who want an abortion”. They argue instead that society should leave these women to find an alternative to the publicly-funded healthcare system.

Arguing from a philosophical perspective they claim that their proposal removes the role of society in this discussion and affords women the power and responsibility to make their own decisions.

This point, among others, is rejected by Marcus Ohlström, a doctoral student in political science at Stockholm University, who penned a response entitled ”No support for a change in abortion legislation” in Dagens Nyheter the following day.

”Burdens and responsibilities are transferred, but not power. Power to make decisions for themselves are guaranteed by a rights-based legislation, where women are given both the right and genuine opportunity to conduct free and safe abortions. As in Sweden today,” he argued.

Ylva Johansson of the Social Democrats was neither persuaded by the philosophical arguments, arguing in a further debate article in DN that the proposal was little more that ”a murky proposal to restrict abortion rights”.

Johansson dismisses the reasoning of Espinoza and Peterson saying that the proposal ”neither benefits the climate nor future generations”, calling on woman to once again ”take up the struggle for our right to decide ourselves over our bodies”.

”One can rightly ask on what grounds Espinoza/Peterson place themselves above a women’s decision by condemning them as morally wrong. The purpose is obviously political – the debaters conclude with a proposal designed to make it more uncomfortable and more expensive for women to have an abortion,” she argued.

Johansson continued to argue that Espinoza and Peterson are wrong in believing that legislation can prevent women from undergoing abortions.

”We know abortions are carried out regardless of how tough the legislation is, but at the expense of women’s lives and health.”

Sweden’s equality minister Nyamko Sabuni joined forces with Åsa Regnér, secretary-general of the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU) in a article published on Wednesday to argue that it would be ”devastating if Swedish abortion legislation is undermined.”

Sabuni and Regnér expressed surprise at Espinoza and Peterson’s article and argue that they consider Swedish abortion legislation to be perfectly adequate as it stands.

”It gives the woman the right to decide herself over her own body. No one other that the woman herself can decide if she is to continue a pregnancy.”

They argue that the ”success of anti-abortionists across Europe make it important to stand up for Swedish legislation” and warned of the risk of applying moral categorisations of right and wrong to reasons for wanting an abortion.

”It is never acceptable to limit a woman’s right to control her body. To guarantee this right means, among other things, that society should assist women who want an abortion. More voices are however needed to strengthen or establish equal rights for women in other countries.”

Sweden amended its abortion legislation in 2008 to extend the right to undergo abortions in Sweden to include women from other counties.

According to Welfare Board statistics for 2009 abortions performed in Sweden are on the decline.

A total of 37,524 abortions were performed in 2009, down on the 38,053 performed in 2008. Among teenagers, abortions declined by 7.8 percent to 22.5 abortions per 1,000 teenage girls compared with 24.4 in the previous year.

A total of 25 percent of known pregnancies ended in an abortion in 2009. Among teenagers, 80 percent of known pregnancies were aborted.

Since abortion legislation was adopted in 1975, the number of terminations carried out in Sweden has varied between 30,000-38,000 per annum.

In a response on Tuesday to the broad criticism of their arguments, Nicolas Espinoza and Martin Peterson rejected the accusation that they are against abortion or a woman’s right to decide over her own body.

The pair furthermore deny that they belong to any political or religious cause and insist that are interested in discussing the abortion issue from a moral philosopical perspective.

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