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Article Norway: Abortion Law May Be Tightened

(Mar. 6, 2014) It was reported on January 2, 2014, that Norway plans to tighten its abortion law, after it was found that the number of late-term abortions appeared to be increasing. Norway’s Public Health Institute figures indicated that while there were five abortions performed late in a pregnancy between 2001 and 2009, 12 late-pregnancy abortions had occurred between 2010 and 2011. All of the abortions had been carried out in the 22nd or 23rd week of pregnancy. (Norway Tightens Law After Late Abortions Revealed, THE LOCAL (Jan. 2, 2014).)

The planned revision of the law was prompted after midwives at Oslo University Hospital complained in 2012 to hospital managers about aborting a healthy fetus almost six months into a pregnancy, and the hospital, concerned that the action was illegal, alerted the Norwegian Directorate of Health of the incident. (Id.) An independent expert panel was established as a result to review the existing abortion laws. (Norway Tightens Law After Late Abortions Revealed, supra; Emily Woodgate, Total Ban on Late Term Abortions, VIEWS AND NEWS FROM NORWAY (Jan. 2, 2014).)

Under Norwegian law, abortions after the twelfth week of pregnancy may be carried out on “social grounds,” e.g., where a pregnancy may place a serious burden on the woman’s physical or mental health or was caused by rape or incest. (Norway Tightens Law After Late Abortions Revealed, supra; Lov om svangerskapsavbrudd [Abortloven] [Law on Termination of Pregnancy [Abortion Law]], Law No. 50 (June 13, 1975, in force on Jan. 1, 1976, as last amended effective July 1, 2013), § 2 ¶ 3, LOVDATA.) The Abortion Law also states that after the 18th week a pregnancy is not to be interrupted except for “particularly weighty reasons,” and if there is reason to believe that the fetus is viable, consent is not to be granted. (Abortion Law, § 2 ¶ 6.)

Fetal viability is further addressed in section 18 of the Regulations on Abortion, which states that a fetus should be assumed to be viable if it would be able survive outside the womb at the time the interruption of pregnancy is carried out. Assessment of fetal viability is to take into account the extant opportunities for treatment of such a fetus after delivery. (Forskrift om svangerskapsavbrudd (Abortforskriften) [Regulations on Termination of Pregnancy (Abortion Regulations)] (June 15, 2001, in force on Sept. 1, 2001, as last amended Jan. 17, 2013), § 18.)

Despite the above provisions, the late-term abortions were possible because the Abortion Law is vague about an absolute time limit for a legal abortion. Commentary on the legislation refers to 22 weeks of gestation as a recommended limit; notes to section 18 of the Abortion Regulations state that normally a fetus would be considered viable after about the end of 22 weeks of pregnancy. (Woodgate, supra; SOSIAL- OG HELSEDEPARTEMENTET [THE (FORMER) DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SOCIAL AFFAIRS], LOV OM SVANGERSKAPSAVBRUDD: MED TILHØRENDE FORSKRIFT OG RUNDSKRIV [THE LAW ON ABORTION: WITH RELATED REGULATIONS AND CIRCULARS] 24 (2001).) Norway’s Central Appeals Commission for Abortions (Sentrale abortklagenemnda) has apparently taken the 22-week limit “as a guide, not as an absolute limit.” (Woodgate, supra.)

Moreover, in September 2013, the panel of experts established to review the country’s abortion laws reported “significant differences and ambiguities in the understanding and practice of the laws.” (Id.) The panel was not asked to, nor did it attempt to determine, an absolute limit for abortions. They noted the possibility of viability as being 23 or 24 weeks. (Mette Løkeland, Norsk Gynekologisk Forening [Norwegian Gynecology Association], e-message to the author, Feb. 26, 2014).)

The head of the Norwegian Gynecology Association, Knut Hordnes, has pointed out that there might be “exceptional cases” in which pregnancies terminated after the recommended 22-week limit could be justified, e.g., if serious chromosomal disorders portended the death of the fetus later in pregnancy or right after birth, if serious social and psychological problems could result for the mother, and if certain criminal offenses, such as rape or incest, are involved. The Association has written a letter to the health authorities in support of the Central Appeals Commission position, stating that an upper limit of 22 weeks would be a violation of the law, and has also posted a detailed article about the issue on its website. (Norway Tightens Law After Late Abortions Revealed, supra; Innskjerping av rett til seinabort [Enforcment of the Right of Late Abortion], Norwegian Gynecology Association website (Jan. 4, 2014).)

Anne Grethe Erlandsen, State Secretary in Norway’s Ministry of Health and Care Services, stated in January 2014 that draft legislation would be released soon for public comment. She said that abortion of viable fetuses “breaches abortion legislation and how we believe it should be implemented.” (Norway Tightens Law After Late Abortions Revealed, supra.)

It may be noted that Norway has a Register of Pregnancy Termination that is maintained by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health’s Department of Medical Birth Registry. Hospitals that perform abortions are required to report information on processed requests for abortions to the Register, using standardized procedures, deadlines, and formatting. (About the Register of Pregnancy Termination, Norwegian Institute of Public Health website (last updated Jan. 14, 2013).) According to the Register’s webpage, “[s]tatistics from the Register provide knowledge about termination trends and help to evaluate measures against unwanted pregnancies. Abortion statistics provide the basis for the supervision of abortion law practice and contribute to good resource use and quality of women’s reproductive health treatment.” (Id.) The collection and processing of the Register’s health data on terminations are governed by the Register of Pregnancy Termination Regulations. (Id.)

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