Massive public protests over a controversial change to Norway’s abortion law, initiated by the small Christian Democrats party, were finally heard on Friday by the country’s Conservative-led government. Health Minister Bent Høie had gone along with the Christian Democrats’ demand that doctors be allowed to refuse to refer women for abortions, but the government could drop the unpopular plan after the Christian Democrats’ leader backed away from it himself on Thursday night.
Heath Minister Høie of the Conservative Party, which leads Norway’s minority government, could announce Friday morning that there now will be no so-called reservasjonsrett (a right to reserve themselves from abortion referrals) for Norwegian doctors, the vast majority of whom work for the state public health service. “We will find another solution,” Høie said, for those doctors who object to abortion on moral or religious grounds.
They make up a tiny minority of Norway’s medical profession which is legally required to implement women’s legal right to an abortion during the first three months of a pregnancy. Women currently must obtain a referral from their primary care physicians (called fastleger in Norway) to have an abortion performed at a local hospital or clinic, though, and sometimes they’ve faced doctors who try to discourage them.
That’s how the Conservatives and the Progress Party, which together make up Norway’s minority government, justified their controversial decision to go along with the demand from the Christian Democrats (one of their two so-called “support parties” in Parliament) that doctors be allowed to reserve themselves from abortion referrals. Høie proposed a system in which such doctors could do so in return for making their positions known. Women, Høie reasoned, could then seek a referral from another doctor, stressing that their rights to an abortion were not threatened.
Tens of thousands of Norwegians nonetheless objected strongly, organizing protest marches in cities all over the country and bombarding the government with criticism. Local governments around the country, including many run by Conservative politicians, also refused to implement any right for their locally hired doctors to reserve themselves against abortion referrals. The Conservatives ended up catching most of the blame for the unwanted changes, even though the wildly unpopular initiative came from the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkepartiet, KrF) and leaders of both the Conservatives and the Progress Party admitted they really didn’t want to make any abortion law changes themselves.
The Christian Democrats, which only have around 5 percent of the vote in Norway, have traditionally opposed abortion and had forced their proposal on the government in return for promises of needed support on other issues. Their position as a centrist party gives them political power out of proportion to their level of voter support, since they can provide the swing votes on key issues, but on Thursday, Christian Democrats leader Knut Arild Hareide beat a retreat, suggesting to newspaper Vårt Land that the party would be open to dropping its demand. That news broke Thursday night, and Høie wasted no time in following up on it Friday morning, calling a sudden “press briefing” that seemed to take many by surprise.
Høie loyally refrained from blaming the Christian Democrats for setting off the entire controversy that upset so many people and dominated political debate during the winter. “We are glad we have acceptance from the Christian Democrats to find an alternative (to a reservation right),” Høie simply said at the briefing. He did note repeatedly, however, that the proposal had “met a lot of public opposition” and “we’re just dropping it.”
Høie wouldn’t say what might be done to placate the Christian Democrats, or even what new political compromises might now be needed in other areas like agricultural reform, but speculation flew immediately, not least on state broadcaster NRK, that the entire abortion referral system may be scrapped with women being able to schedule the procedure themselves at a hospital. That would eliminate the need to even involve their primary physicians, likely saving time and money as well.
Opponents and critics of reservation right were jubilant on Friday, claiming that their protest actions proved that democracy had prevailed. Bloggers like Susanne Kaluza even praised the politicians for reversing their unpopular proposal instead of insisting on carrying it out as a matter of political prestige. “This is just fantastic,” Kaluza told NRK.
Hareide didn’t attend Høie’s briefing on Friday but told Vårt Land that the party was now willing “to look at other alternatives” as long as they addressed the concerns of both doctors and women. He claimed he still wanted doctors to “be able to avoid acting in defiance of their conscience” while women’s rights are preserved.
Hareide had to give up his party’s campaign on behalf of doctors opposed to abortion, though, not least after local governments in all of Norway’s major cities had opposed his proposal that the state government had accepted. In Høie’s own hometown of Stavanger, for example, city officials claimed the Christian Democrats-initiated proposal “weakened women’s rights” and could violate state law. Not even the Conservative government in Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s hometown of Bergen would accept it, nor would the Conservative government in Oslo.