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I first met Ellinor Grimmark at her lawyers’ office in Uppsala in the spring of 2017. The 43-year-old Swedish midwife and mother of two was of diminutive stature, with tightly curled blond hair and striking blue eyes framed by angular features. There was a tender toughness to her that I knew she would need as she reluctantly played protagonist in perhaps the most important freedom-of-conscience battle in Europe.
Now, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has dismissed her case as inadmissible, suggesting in a ruling Thursday that governments can blacklist midwives like Ellinor who refuse to assist with abortions. Put another way, Europe’s highest human-rights court has in effect recognized a duty to kill the unborn.
Ellinor decided to become a midwife amid a severe shortage. To induce new recruits, local governments pay modest stipends to nurses considering midwifery. In Ellinor’s case, Jönköping County offered her $1,900 a month while she finished her training. Ellinor, who hails from Sweden’s intensely evangelical southern Bible Belt, was aware that some midwives are called upon to participate in abortions, but she assumed there would be conscience exemptions.
Besides, as she told me, “there is so much to do as a midwife. So I just thought, ‘OK, that’s one part, but I will do everything else.’” There is indeed much more to midwifery than extinguishing new life, and as one 2007 study found, 35 percent of midwives had never been involved in that grim task across their entire careers; another 23 percent hadn’t participated in abortions in the previous two years. Rationality and freedom of conscience could thus go hand-in-hand.
But no. What Ellinor didn’t expect was the sheer zeal of Sweden’s medical establishment, its ironclad commitment to ideological uniformity on abortion, even if that meant exacerbating the midwife shortage. In 2013, as she was finishing her studies, she mentioned her pro-life views to her supervisors at the hospital that was to hire her. The response from her manager: “How could you even think of becoming a midwife with these opinions?”
A few days later, her stipend was cut off. Another hospital offered to hire her, then backtracked, while a third said it could provide Ellinor with counseling aimed at reconciling her obstinate mind with the good of abortion. Eventually, she accepted a job in next-door Norway, which, despite a relatively liberal abortion regime, allows midwives with conscience objections to do the job that midwives have done since time immemorial: namely, bringing new life into the world.
Though the commute to Norway was four hours each way, and Ellinor hated leaving her own children, she delivered hundreds of babies in Norway. But when she filed suit in 2014 against the county council in Jönköping, she became Public Enemy No. 1 in her homeland.
At a panel on Islamist radicalism, a former government antiterror coordinator said: “Those who refuse to perform abortions”—a clear allusion to Ellinor and a second conscientious objector, Linda Steen—“are in my opinion extreme religious practitioners” similar to jihadists. On a popular TV show, feminist writer Cissi Wallin quipped: “Those who are against abortion now, can’t we abort them — retroactively?” Her fellow pundits laughed and agreed.
National tribunals in Sweden ruled against Ellinor (and Steen), making their case ripe for appeal to the ECHR. On paper, the two midwives had a formidable argument. Health workers mustn’t be blacklisted “because of a refusal to perform, accommodate, assist or submit to an abortion,” the Council of Europe has repeatedly emphasized. The European Convention on Human Rights likewise enshrines a “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” States can restrict freedom of conscience in narrow contexts, but they must do so for legitimate purposes, using means that are “proportionate” in a democratic society.
Norway, where Ellinor has now moved full-time with her family, permits abortions but also carves out exemptions for pro-life practitioners. Then, too, even some older Swedish midwives still enjoy conscience rights under grandfathered arrangements that were part of the legislative history of the country’s 1974 omnibus abortion legalization bill.
So, slam dunk at the ECHR, the last guarantor of religious-conscience rights in a continent ruled by the children of the Enlightenment? Nope. In a decision marked by an astonishing absence of actual legal reasoning, the ECHR stated that Sweden’s interference with Ellinor’s freedom of conscience was justified in a democratic society, because it comported with Swedish law (well, one wonders, why then even have a supranational court?).
The ECHR also observed that “Sweden provides nationwide abortion services and therefore has a positive obligation to organize its health system in a way as to ensure that the effective exercise of freedom of conscience . . . does not prevent the provision of such services.” Employers, it went on, with that simple and brutal logic of the managerial liberal society, have a right to organize work in such a way as to require employees to do “all duties inherent to the post,” including the killing of babies as a midwife.
To repeat: If you are a midwife, a European state can now compel you to kill the unborn child. There is no shirking the duty to abort, that is, unless you are prepared to leave your home country and/or lose your profession. If there is a silver lining here, it is the stark revelation of the inner logic of the liberal society, how its promise of “freedom” without ends or limits inevitably strangles true freedom.
This column has been updated to clarify the nature of the ECHR's ruling.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post. He is finishing a book exploring 12 questions our culture doesn’t ask.
Photo by Adrian Grycuk via Creative Commons. Image cropped.