Defining moments # 7

Sweden's road to abortion on demand

6:16 min

Today, Sweden has one of the most liberal abortion acts in the world, but it took us almost half a century to get here.

Today it's up to the mother to decide whether she wants to give birth or have an abortion. The procedure is usually performed during the first 18 weeks of the pregnancy, after that you need special permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare. It's covered by the local county council and costs no more than a normal doctor's appointment.

It's been this way since 1975, but it took Sweden almost half a century to get here.

In the early 20th century, it was illegal to have an abortion, and it wasn't until the 1920's that we started talking about lifting these restrictions, says Lena Lennerhed, professor in the history of ideas at Södertörn University.

"At that time it was a very sensitive issue, but at least that starts the discussion which later leads to the 1938 reform when women are allowed to apply to have an abortion for medical reasons," says Lennerhed.

Back in 1938, women could only apply to have an abortion if her life was at risk, if she had been raped or if the foetus was carrying a genetic disorder, but as Lennerhed tells it, not many women applied.

"The legal abortions were not many, they were only a few hundred every year, whereas the illegal abortions were many many more. They were estimated to be up to 24,000 illegal abortions every year, and everybody knew this. So, there was a need to extend the law," Lennerhed says.

The Abortion Act was amended less than a decade later, in 1946, to allow abortions for social reasons, such as if the mother was poor or too young, and if the mother's physical or mental health was at risk. This last amendment came to play a big part in both Swedish and American abortion legislation in the early 1960's, when an American woman was denied abortion in the States and turned to Sweden for help.

The woman, Sherri Finkbine, had been taking sleeping pills, called thalidomide, during her pregnancy, and it later turned out that the pills caused foetuses to become severely deformed. Finkbine turned to the press to warn people about the drug, but in doing so she caused a media frenzy, and because of the publicity and the abortion laws in the States back then, she was denied abortion. So, she turned to Sweden, where her request was granted to safeguard her mental health.

"She became world-famous. It must be one of the most publicised abortions in history. It was big news all over the world and this massive attention, I think, contributed to a rather quick amendment of the law," Lennerhed says.

The Finkbine case prompted another amendment of the law the following year, so that it included serious injuries to the foetus as a ground for abortion. The pivotal moment towards abortion on demand, however, came a few years later, when Sweden's political youth organisations started talking about scrapping the system of having to apply to have an abortion, says Lena Lennerhed.

"It was a very new demand in the Swedish debate. I would say that most people were opposed to it in the beginning. It was rather shocking for them to suggest to just abolish the old system, but after a while other organisations followed," says Lennerhed.

While the political parties were busy discussing abortion on demand, a worrying trend had caught the attention of the Swedish media. It turned out that a large number of Swedish women were travelling to Poland at the time to have their procedures done there instead of applying for an abortion in Sweden.

"When this was publicised in Sweden, the police went to one of the editors, Hans Nestius', home because he had advocated for abortion on demand and because he had provided information to Swedish women about how they could get to Poland and where to go. The police went to his house and had plans to arrest both him and many of the women who had gone to Poland, but this sparked such a heated debate that the plans were stopped. Instead, the government called for a commission to come up with ways to liberalise the Swedish abortion law," says Lennerhed.

And it's this investigation that, close to ten years later, was turned into the Swedish Abortion Law of 1974. Lena Lennerhed says that while there have been criticism throughout the years, mostly from Christian and Pro-life groups, the law still has wide support today.

"It's very rare for groups in Sweden to say that abortion is murder, the groups here are more pragmatic and suggest things like waiting periods or compulsory counselling and these kinds of arguments come and go, but I would say that the abortion law still has great support in Sweden today," says Lennerhed.