NEWS ANALYSIS: The potential tyranny of the minority mobilized the majority in Norway over the weekend, and that seemed to surprise Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Her government gave in to demands from the small Christian Democrats party to change Norway’s abortion law, and now they’re paying the price in the form of major protests and a loss of voter support.
It was the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti, KrF) who pushed through the proposed abortion law changes that mobilized so many on Kvinnedagen (International Women’s Day) on Saturday. Police estimated that as many as 15,000 demonstrators filled the large public square called Youngstorget in downtown Oslo before they marched through the capital.
Thousands also turned out in cities and communities all over the country, with Bergen and Trondheim also seeing the largest demonstrations on Women’s Day in years. Media reported many examples of three generations of families out marching, as young mothers demonstrated to defend rights won back in the 1970s by their own mothers and pass them on to their children. They urged Solberg and her government to “listen to the people” and resist any change to Norway’s abortion law.
United in opposition
The vast majority were united in their opposition to what’s become known as reservasjonsrett, the proposed law change would give doctors the right to reserve themselves from having to refer women for abortions. There are only an estimated 100 doctors in the country who would do so, but the Christian Democrats want them to be able to follow their conscience and not be legally obliged to refer patients for the procedure. The Christian Democrats only won 5.6 percent of the vote at the last national elections in Norway, but had the power as a so-called “support party” for Solberg’s minority coalition government to pressure it into proposing the law change in return for getting their support on other issues.
Curiously, it’s not the Christian Democrats who are now the target of the public outrage over the abortion change but the two government parties, Solberg’s Conservatives and the Progress Party, for going along with it. Norwegian media outlets also seem to let the Christian Democrats off the hook in the controversy, even though neither the Conservatives nor the Progress Party supported any abortion law change in their political platforms.
Underestimated the opposition
Solberg, who spent Women’s Day herself at a meeting of her party’s youth organization in Hardanger, had vainly tried to shift the focus of Women’s Day issues away from the abortion issue, especially as news spread last week that it was mobilizing women to march. Solberg herself said she was most concerned about violence against women and even suggested that many other issues, not just the abortion law change, were mobilizing the marchers. On Saturday, she suggested to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it was “strange” to think that people were so riled up over a law change that she has defended as streamlining abortion referral procedures and giving women more information about doctors than they had before.
The government has also stressed that women’s right to an abortion in the first trimester of a pregnancy remains firmly in place in Norway. The problem is that any tinkering with the law poses a threat in the minds of many, and Solberg did seem to realize how explosive her government’s concession to the Christian Democrats would be.
Backlash from ‘horse trading’
Newspaper Aftenposten editorialized on Sunday that it’s the “horse trading” with the Christian Democrats that’s really gotten Solberg’s government in trouble on this issue. Solberg’s Conservative Party, Aftenposten noted, has itself “made it crystal clear that women are the weaker party in an abortion case, not the doctors,” adding that “it’s no pretty sight when such a principle is negotiated away when a new government is formed.”
Solberg was being firmly urged on Monday to pay attention to the warning that the demonstrators were sending over the weekend. Most agree that her government, in which women hold top positions, is not anti-women, but now it clearly is the target of a backlash over the Christian Democrats’ abortion law demands. Aftenposten called on Solberg’s strategists to summon up enough “political fantasy” to find “other issues” that the Christian Democrats could gain support for, instead of one that “leads to gender equality taking a step backwards.”
That, though, raises the prospect that Solberg’s government will cave in on other issues, giving up its efforts to reduce Norwegian protectionism, for example, to keep its support parties happy. Solberg was left to fend off critics, partially apologize for not immediately embracing the seriousness of Saturday’s protests, and facing a new opinion poll showing another decline in voter support on Monday. It all hit just as the government headed into its first round of state budget negotiations, the results of which are also likely to set off political dissent.