On January 28, 1935, which makes it exactly 80 years ago yesterday, Iceland was the first Western country to legalize abortion. There is some debate though whether Iceland really was the first as there were many other places which had some kind of regulations on that matter before 1935.
Law No. 38 was, however, something that we might now label as a common modern abortion legalization policy.
Let’s see how this law came about.
In the aftermath of the Great Depression of the 1930s the demand for abortions was on the rise in Iceland. Many women simply couldn’t afford to carry a child to term.
Back in the days, a woman with an unwanted pregnancy had a big problem as abortion was still illegal and was punishable with up to eight years of forced labor. But despite the illegality of said medical intervention Icelandic doctors still performed abortions on women in need in hospitals as it seems, according to historian Unnur Birna Karlsdóttir, who has done extensive research on the topic of the history of abortion in Iceland.
In an interview with German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk (in German) a decade ago, Unnur Birna stated that Iceland didn’t experience any cases of fatalities due to botched back-street abortions and it really was the Icelandic doctors striking a blow for abortion.
The author of Law No.38 was physician Vilmundur Jónsson who was the Chairman of the Icelandic Medical Association at the time and also an active and influential member of the Social Democratic Party (Alþýðuflokkurinn).
The remarkable thing about this law was not only that it gave women the opportunity to terminate a pregnancy for medical reasons but the new regulations also took social indicators into account such as poverty, domestic situation or how many children the woman already had to support.
Personally, I think this goes without saying and this is of course how it should be. Ideally we wouldn’t need abortions but since we don’t live in Utopia it’s important to have a choice.
To be honest, I, a woman living in 2015, kind of take those rights for granted but I know that many, many girls and women all around the world are sadly not that lucky.
Therefore I’m grateful for all those Vilmundurs in the world and for everyone who is, or was somewhere at some time, fighting for women’s choice.
Katharina Hauptmann – katha.hauptmann(at)gmail.com