After setting off massive political debate and public protests, the head of the Christian Democrats party Knut Arild Hareide has formally given up his controversial effort to allow doctors who oppose abortion to reserve themselves against issuing referrals for the procedure. Now no referrals will even be necessary, and women can simply head for a hospital or clinic and arrange for an abortion themselves.
Hareide went along with a new proposal from Health Minister Bent Høie of the Conservatives that abolishes any need for primary care physicians to refer patients for abortions. As Høie said at a press conference on Wednesday, dropping the need for referrals relieves any anti-abortion doctors of acting against their conscience, while also ensuring women their right to seek abortions in a simpler and more effective manner.
“I admit that we could have come up with this solution at an earlier point in time,” Hareide said. The so-called and hotly contested reservasjonsrett (reservation right) for doctors that his party initiated “was the practical solution we found to allow doctors to abide by their conscience,” Hareide said, adding that “now we have found a much better way to do that.”
It was Hareide’s small Christian-oriented party that forced the Conservatives-led government into the reservation issue that ignited public fury and left the government taking the blame for trying to satisfy the Christian Democrats’ demand in order to secure political support on other issues. Høie noted on Wednesday that the public outcry among those who felt the issue also jeopardized women’s abortion rights “made an impression,” and was a decisive factor in the government later backing down from it.
Hareide could also see that his party’s proposal was highly unpopular, leading some top politicians like Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party to complain that it unnecessarily upset many Norwegians around the country. But something still needed to be done, he claimed, to protect the rights of both doctors and patients, hence Wednesday’s agreement to drop the need for referrals.
Høie refused to say he regretted his government’s decision to try to appease the Christian Democrats on the issue in the first place. “It’s never a waste of time to stir up a good debate,” Høie said. “In this case, we have listened to the people, and that’s never a waste of time either.”
Norway’s abortion law already gives women the right to choose an abortion herself until the 12th week of pregnancy, and seek the procedure directly at a hospital. If she goes through a doctor though, the law requires a written referral. That requirement will now effectively be revoked.