Sweden Blacklists an Antiabortion Midwife
Ellinor Grimmark found the ‘opinion corridor’ was too narrow to make room for her Christian faith.
Ellinor Grimmark didn’t set out to wage a campaign. In 2007 the 40-year-old mother of two quit her catering job to become a midwife. She studied for years, dreaming of bringing life into the world. But Ms. Grimmark was professionally blacklisted in Sweden for her opposition to abortion. Now she is at the center of a yearslong legal dispute whose outcome will have implications for freedom of conscience in Sweden and across Europe.
Despite a reputation for stellar health care, Sweden faces an acute midwife shortage. Eighty percent of the county councils that run local hospitals reported having trouble recruiting midwives last year. An older cohort is retiring faster than its members can be replaced, and the perception that midwives are overworked dampens enthusiasm for the profession. Local governments in many areas provide prospective midwives with a monthly stipend while they complete their certification. Jönköping County, in southern Sweden, agreed to pay Ms. Grimmark $1,900 a month during the year-and-half she studied. Ms. Grimmark, a devout Christian, knew that some midwives participate in abortions, but she assumed that hospitals would offer conscience carve-outs for practitioners like her. “There is so much to do as a midwife,” she says in an interview at her lawyer’s office. “So I just thought, ‘OK, that’s one part, but I will do everything else.’ ” But Ms. Grimmark underestimated the authorities’ determination to root out antiabortion sentiment. In spring 2013, with one term left in her studies, she asked supervisors at the hospital where she planned to work to accommodate her conscience rights. She received a furious call from one manager. “How could you even think of becoming a midwife with these opinions?” Ms. Grimmark recalls the manager screaming. “What would you do if a patient who’d had an abortion came to you bleeding?” Ms. Grimmark tried to answer that she would help a woman in that condition, but the voice on the phone kept screaming. Ms. Grimmark was told she wasn’t welcome. A few days later a text message informed her that her stipend would be cut off.
One other hospital denied her employment over her views, while still another made an offer, only to backtrack. One even offered counseling to help her come to terms with abortion. Concerned that her skills would atrophy, she accepted a midwife job in neighboring Norway, where hospitals accommodate abortion objectors. She commuted four hours each way.
In Nordic countries, and Sweden especially, elite institutions create what political scientists call “opinion corridors,” setting the parameters of debate. Ms. Grimmark was locked out of the opinion corridor on medical freedom of conscience. When she sued the Jönköping council in 2014, claiming religious discrimination and violation of her freedom of conscience, she became a public enemy.
Speaking at a panel on Islamist extremism in 2015, Mona Sahlin, a prominent politician and former government antiterror coordinator, argued that “those who refuse to perform abortions are in my opinion extreme religious practitioners” not unlike jihadists. In January a TV segment framed Ms. Grimmark as part of “a global wave of oppression against women.” On another TV panel the same month, feminist writer Cissi Wallin mused, “Those who are against abortion now, can’t we abort them—retroactively?” Another panelist replied, “Yes, a really great idea!” The others chuckled.
The trial court in November 2015 ruled against Ms. Grimmark, despite legislative history showing that Sweden’s 1974 abortion law protects freedom of conscience. Under the law abortions may be performed only by medical doctors, suggesting that its drafters never contemplated midwives as abortion providers. An appellate tribunal is expected to rule on Ms. Grimmark’s appeal this week. If it upholds the lower court, she will then have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights, where the weight of European law favors her argument.
Norway and Denmark manage to protect both abortion rights and freedom of conscience, and that hasn’t triggered a women’s health crisis in either country. Even some Swedish midwives enjoy freedom of conscience under informal arrangements that have been grandfathered in. “They still think they are putting women first by not giving me a job,” Ms. Grimmark says. “We have Swedish mothers giving birth in Norway because they know they will have a midwife there. In Sweden, you don’t know. We’ve had mothers dying because they didn’t have midwives. It’s crazy. It’s like Africa—but it’s Sweden.”
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