He who returns from a storm has experience. (Icelandic proverb) Eighty Years Ago Iceland Legalised Abortion
Many of us are familiar with Iceland – from crime novels: ‘Guardians of the Covenant’, ‘Arctic Chill’, etc. These and other works are available in English for our reading pleasure, but not much else is known about this remote isle.
But on 28 January Iceland had something else to be proud of, namely its progressiveness: precisely 80 years ago – on 28 January 1935 – Iceland legalised abortion, the first Western country to do so. The global economic crisis of the 1930s had hit this country, where the most important natural resource was fish. Exports fell off rapidly, factories were forced to close, jobs disappeared, and the population (approximately 110,000 at the time) quickly descended into poverty. How were women expected to feed their families, to say nothing of come up with the money for contraceptives?
During this time of economic suffering, a pregnancy represented a potential catastrophe. Abortion was punished with eight years at a labour camp. But politicians and the medical community were aware of the women’s plight and did what they could to help. In fact, abortions were performed by doctors and at hospitals so that women wouldn’t die from back-alley procedures as in other countries.
The Icelandic Medical Association’s chairman was the Social-Democratic MP Dr. Vilmundur Jónsson (1889-1972). Although his party held only about one fifth of the seats in Parliament, he’s considered the father of the abortion law. Social circumstances were taken into account: “... if the woman previously gave birth to several children in rapid succession and the last was born recently, or if the woman suffers from extremely grim domestic circumstances due to several children that are not provided for, poverty or serious illness in her household”.
Critics voiced the opinion that ‘abortions tolerated in the face of poverty’, which was the rule before adoption of the law, gave doctors more latitude than codification of concrete conditions. In fact, however, Iceland was the first country with a modern abortion law, and the 1935 regulation served as a model for legislation in most other European countries in the 1970s.
The first of any country to legalise abortion, the Soviet Union, did so in 1920, though prohibition was reinstated under Joseph Stalin to ensure the largest possible population.