ROME, November 25, 2013 ( – The Swedish government is guilty of violating the European Social Charter that protects the “right to protection of health [and] non-discrimination” for doctors and medical students who refuse to participate in abortion, a formal complaint to the Council of Europe alleges.

According to the complaint, in Sweden, “Health care professionals that have strong objections to abortion, especially late term abortions when the foetus aborted is viable, have been obliged to participate and act against their conscience.”

The Federation of Catholic Family Associations, (FAFCE), an international NGO, lodged the complaint in March. They said that the government has allowed “conscientious objectors to be treated in a discriminatory way,” and has failed “to enact comprehensive and clear policy and guidelines to prevent serious incidents or deficiencies when abortion is recommended.” 


The group is representing the Swedish organisations Christian Physicians and Medical Students (KLM) and Pro Vita, a pro-life advocacy group.

According to the complaint, in most cases health care workers who object to abortion “are told that they have chosen the wrong job, the wrong profession or the wrong department.” 

“Health care workers and health care students are reprimanded, repositioned or put at disadvantage for refusing to perform procedures such as abortions and the Swedish report about the need of a conscience clause for medical students, show that conscientious objection could lead to the denial of a medical diploma referred to the lack of a conscientious objection clause,” says the document. 

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The document also cites the public debate sparked in 2011 by reports that babies were born alive and then “put aside to die by themselves in hospital rooms after late-term abortions”. Health care workers told the media of some cases in which children, after 18 or 22 weeks gestation, “could live up to one hour after the abortion.” 

The case caused some health care workers to resign their positions, citing “physiological distress.” One nurse launched complaints with the National Board of Health and Welfare. “Medicine Today” quoted one nurse saying, “It feels terrible that we are allowing fully viable foetuses to die right before our eyes. But we can do nothing. Otherwise, we are breaking the law.” 

The pro-life gruops say that the Swedish government has failed “to enact a comprehensive and clear legal and policy framework governing the practice of conscientious objection by healthcare providers in Sweden”. They are alleging that the government is in violation of a number of international agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. 

They pointed to resolution 1763 from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which was drafted specifically to counter attempts to undermine rights of conscience. It declares that “no person, hospital or institution shall be coerced, held liable or discriminated against in any manner because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion” or euthanasia. 

Resolution 1763 was created in 2010 in response to a report by Christine McCafferty, a British politician and abortion activist, to address what she called “the problem of unregulated use of conscientious objection”.

But according to FAFCE, the Swedish standing committee, “has remained negative to the content of Resolution 1763” and added that the Swedish delegation to the PACE “has been directed by the Swedish Government to take action to accomplish a ‘change’ of this resolution”. 

In 2011, in response to the failure of McCafferty’s project, the Swedish parliament voted 271 to 20 to instruct PACE delegates to “take more action” to fight the resolution. The motion complained that the PACE resolution, “implies that health care workers should have the possibility to choose not to perform abortions.”

“Sweden should support efforts which makes abortions free, safe and legal for all women. Sweden is one of few countries who are central in the international work focusing on sexual and reproductive health and rights,” the motion said. 

Abortion in Sweden is available on demand up to 18 weeks gestation. After that time, permission must be granted, on “exceptional grounds,” by the National Board of Health and Welfare. But the FAFCE complaint says that “in practice, 90 per cent of every application of abortion after week 18 is granted approval and nearly every application is granted approval if there are indications of disability”.

In 2008, the existing restrictions were further loosened with the passage of an act allowing foreign women, including asylum applicants and non-permanent residents, to have abortions in Sweden, an act that some have called the “Abortion Tourism Act”. 

The FAFCE complaint document notes that the number of abortions performed in Sweden is increasing, and although the number of abortions performed on the youngest age group has dropped, “Sweden still tops the table” of European countries with the highest teenage abortion rates for young girls. 

“No official guideline on how to reduce these numbers and promote the health of young women has been made by the Swedish government,” says FAFCE.

The groups have called for greater protections and more transparency in reporting abortion recommendations by doctors, citing cases where women were incorrectly diagnosed with problem pregnancies which were then aborted or cases in which abortion drugs were incorrectly prescribed or administered.

They said that the common failure to “prevent serious deficiencies” in such cases “is an infringement of the right to the protection according to the Patient Safety Act”. They have called for the creation of guidelines on ways to reduce the abortion rate among the youngest age groups. 


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