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Faroe Islands hold on to restrictive abortion laws

The Faroe Islands, a self-governing part of Denmark in the North Atlantic, still enforce abortion rules passed in 1956. Asked why, the minister of social affairs said changing the law is not a priority for locals.

TORSHAVN, Faroe Islands (CN) — In light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the ensuing debate on American women’s right to abortion, the Danish media and public have reignited a discussion over restrictive abortion laws on the Faroe Islands.

The Faroe Islands are a self-governing part of Denmark, located far north in the Atlantic Ocean near Scotland, Norway, and Iceland. An archipelago consisting of 18 main islands, they are widely geographically cut off from neighboring countries. 

Whereas Denmark introduced free abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy in 1973, the Faroe Islands have kept their restrictive laws from 1956.

Today, a Faroese woman has to fulfill one of four special criteria to be legally eligible for an abortion: She must either be in severe danger, have been exposed to rape or incest, carrying a fetus at risk of suffering from severe physical illness, or be deemed unable to take care of her child.

It is up to the woman´s general doctor to make the initial judgement call. Afterwards, she needs a second evaluation at the National Hospital in the capital city of Torshavn before a final approval and execution of the abortion can take place.      

The alternative for Faroese women is to travel to mainland Denmark and have the abortion done at a Danish hospital. But that would require a personal identification number known as a CPR and a health card, both of which are reserved for people who have lived in Denmark.

According to Sólvit E. Nolsø, minister of social affairs for the Faroe Islands, the debate is not particularly timely for locals. While the issue has had a recent resurgence in the Danish media, abortion laws are not on the current political agenda.

“It is a discussion that we bring up now and then. But currently, there is no public or political majority to change the old laws. And to change it, we would need to write a completely new law that has broad backing and can replace the Danish one from 1956,” Nolsø said in an interview.

Solvit E. Nolsø, minister of social affairs for the Faroe Islands, is pictured in Tórshavn in July 2022. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

Up until 2018, the Danish parliament had formal responsibility for abortion law, the minister said. Only recently did Faroese politicians get back the responsibility for legislation in the territory.

That is the main argument for why the local government should change abortion rules soon, according to Nolsø.

“All active Danish laws should be made Faroese and shaped after our people´s opinion. Furthermore, the old law is outdated. The worldview has changed, and some of its wordings and phrases do not represent today´s society. For example, it speaks about the ´risk of retardedness'”, he said.  

Nolsø is a member of the Faroese People´s Party, known in Danish as Fólkaflokkurin, which has as its core priority making the Faroe Islands wholly sovereign and independent from Denmark. Seat-wise, it is the largest party in the Faroese national government.  

He noted that getting sufficient support to change the current status quo on abortion rules is challenging, mainly because the topic is very sensitive and quickly becomes personal on the small islands.

”Our talks always move from politics and principles to stories about someone you know. Everyone has a neighbor, a friend or a cousin who could potentially have had an abortion. So, it becomes a question of humans and souls. We live so close here, and it is difficult to scale up the debate in a small community,” Nolsø said.

Anne Mette Greve Klemensen, a priest and chair of the Faroese Council of Ethics, also emphasized the topic of abortion is tricky to bring up among the Faroese people while speaking to the Danish paper Kristeligt Dagblad earlier this summer.

“It is a very sensitive subject here at the Faroe Islands, and it has formerly happened that the waves go very high with accusations of infanticide and parties that do not reach each other at all,” she said.

Klemensen added that the desire to change the current abortion regulations must come from the Faroese people and not from external pressure.

However, from a political point of view, Nolsø said it does not make it easier that there is currently no solid data on the number of abortions done abroad or from an inquiry of local doctors.

He noted that with one year left in the current government's term, it is unlikely the laws will be reformed soon as the momentum is not there.

“What everyone can agree on for now is that the status quo is less dangerous,” he said.  

Under the current abortion rules, the pregnant woman and her doctor can risk jail time if they move forward with an abortion without ticking off any of the four criteria mentioned above.

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