Women's right to abortion continues to be a contentious issue all over the world. Danish women won abortion rights in 1973 at the height of the new women's movement after years of struggle
By Katarina Blomqvist
In 1973 the Danish parliament passed, by a large majority, a new Abortion Law. The law was a victory for the women’s movement, but the route to legislation had been long and hard.
Until 1866 Danish law categorised termination of pregnancy as premeditated murder, punishable by the death sentence for those involved. The penalty was then reduced to 8 years imprisonment, which in 1930 was further reduced to 2 years.
First abortion laws
1937 saw the first independent law pertaining to termination of pregnancy; the aim of the legislation was to reduce the number of illegal abortions. This number is, for obvious reasons, unknown, but researchers have estimated that many thousands of illegal abortions were carried out every year (probably somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000).
Abortion was still illegal under the new law, but women could seek termination of pregnancy on grounds of:
continuation of pregnancy involved serious risk to the pregnant women’s life or health
foetal impairment due to hereditary factors
pregnancy was the result of rape
When the law came into force in 1939, the number of applications made and permission granted for abortion rose dramatically. 1954/55 saw 9,160 applications for abortion, of which approximately half, 4,448, were allowed by the adjudicating authority. It is surmised that the number of illegal abortions rose explosively during the 1940s and ’50s.
The fight against abortion
The second half of the 1960s was one long onslaught on the abortion law. The campaign was instigated by a group of students at the University of Copenhagen. In 1965 they arranged an ‘abortion week’, during which a series of lectures by prominent experts explained the medical, legal, psychological and social aspects of abortion.
The arrangement attracted large audiences and proved, as did the subsequent public debate, that a new law was badly needed, but that there were also widespread misgivings about abortion on demand. On the other hand, the previously so vehement opposition to any kind of legalisation of abortion had almost disappeared.
In 1967 Socialistisk Folkeparti (Socialist People’s Party) introduced a bill pertaining to abortion on demand, but it was voted down. The party continued, however, to table the bill time and again. Supporters of abortion on demand were to be found in all political parties, but the majority of MPs wanted to appoint a commission which would reassess the rights of mother and foetus.
Minor liberalisation of abortion laws
The resulting report of 1969 recommended minor liberalisation of existing abortion legislation, giving access to abortion on demand to two groups: women under the age of 18 who were found to be ill-equipped for motherhood, and women over the age of 38 who were presumed to be mature enough to make a qualified decision. All other women would have to continue to apply for special permission.
The commission’s recommendations were implemented by parliament in the Abortion Act of 1970. But the debate continued. Opposition to legislation secured a political forum in Kristeligt Folkeparti (Christian People’s Party), which was founded in 1970 on an anti-abortion and anti-pornography platform.
During the 1960s, the youth section of Dansk Kvindesamfund (Danish Women’s Society) added abortion on demand to its policy programme and launched a scheme to arrange ‘abortion trips’ to Poland. The rest of the Danish Women’s Society was still against abortion on demand; the dispute ended in the dissolution of the youth section.
In 1968 the activists set up an independent association, Individ og Samfund (Individual and Society). The association opened ‘abortion offices’ providing advice on how to get an application for abortion passed by the authorities, and arranged ‘abortion trips’ abroad – to destinations including, besides Poland, Great Britain and the Netherlands.
By 1969 a majority of members in the Danish Women’s Society supported abortion on demand, and after 1970 the so-called Redstocking movement injected new vigour into the abortion campaign. The 1971 general election resulted in an influx of young women politicians with feminist principles, further strengthening the voice of the pro-abortion lobby.
Abortion legalised in 1973
In 1972 the women’s organisations and Redstockings, in collaboration with the women politicians, arranged a series of hearings and demonstrations which received a great deal of media coverage. The following year, the government introduced a bill to legalise abortion on demand; parliament passed the bill.