The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has dismissed the case of two Christian midwives who were denied jobs in Sweden for refusing to perform abortions, ruling that the violation of the women’s consciences was “justified”.
After losing several court battles in Sweden, the two women — Ellinor Grimmark and Linda Steen — took their plight to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which announced this week it will not take up the case.
Swedish law obliges all midwives to perform abortions and makes no allowance for conscientious objection based on religious faith.
In dismissing Ms Grimmark’s complaint, ECHR judges recognised there had been “an interference with her freedom of religion under Article Nine” of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) — but insisted that this interference “was proportionate and justified with the view of achieving a legitimate aim.”
The interference “had a sufficient basis in Swedish law,” the judges claimed, and “pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the health of women seeking an abortion.”
“Sweden provides nationwide abortion services and therefore has a positive obligation to organise its health system in a way as to ensure that the effective exercise of freedom of conscience of health professionals in the professional context does not prevent the provision of such services,” the judges declared.
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Both women received state funding for their training in Sweden as midwives, but despite Sweden’s acute midwife shortage, they were refused midwifery jobs when they revealed they would be unwilling to carry out abortions.
Ms Grimmark applied for a job at the women’s clinic at Värnamo Hospital, which denied her the position but offered her counselling “in order to come to terms with abortions and to change her mind.”
The women attempted to redress the wrong through Sweden’s legal system, arguing unsuccessfully that they had suffered discrimination because of their Christian faith and that their freedom of conscience had been violated.
The European Court ruling echoed a recent report from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which stated that religious liberty must surrender to “human rights” such as the right to an abortion or same-sex marriage.
UN official Ahmed Shaheed lamented religiously-informed “laws and policies that restrict sexual and reproductive rights,” including “partial or total bans on access to abortion and contraception.”
In his report, Mr Shaheed explicitly condemned the appeal to conscientious objection to avoid having to perform abortions.
“One area of particular concern regarding accommodations to national law for religious beliefs is the use of conscientious objection by healthcare providers and institutions unwilling to perform abortions or provide access to contraception on religious grounds,” the Special Rapporteur stated.
Shaheed said that the Human Rights Committee “has called on States to ensure that women have access to legal abortion notwithstanding conscientious objection by medical practitioners, which it has referred to as a ‘barrier’ to access.”
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