Grimmark v. Sweden and Steen v. Sweden: no right for healthcare professionals to refuse to participate in abortion services, and framing strategies by anti-abortion actors.

This blogpost was written by Niklas Barke, PhD Candidate, Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University

On the 11th of March, the European Court of Human Rights (the Court) issued its decisions in Grimmark v. Sweden and Steen v. Sweden, two cases casting light on the issue of refusal by healthcare professionals to participate in abortion procedures. The Court in these fairly straight-forward decisions rejected the Applicants’ complaints as manifestly ill-founded. Rather, the Court found the Swedish authorities’ decision to not employ midwives who refused to participate in abortion procedures complied with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the Convention). These two cases are ground-breaking in that this is the first time that the Court decides on the issue of a purported right to refuse to carry out work duties in relation to abortion. Earlier cases relating to so-called conscientious objection have either related to other substantive issues, or been considered from the opposite perspective, that is, in relation to complaints that such refusal has impeded the possibilities to access legal abortion. Building on landmark cases such as R.R. v. Poland (2011) (blog posts here and here, P. and S. v. Poland (2012) (blog post here), Pichon and Sajous v. France (2001), Regner v. the Czech Republic (2017) (blog post here), Skugar and others v. Russia (2009), and Eweida and others v. the United Kingdom (2013) (blog posts here and here), the cases against Sweden follow the trajectory of previous case-law concerning abortion services, refusal to perform work duties, and the question whether there is a right to hold a certain work position. The Court also rejected the Applicants’ complaints under Articles 10 and 14 of the Convention, respectively. However, the focus of this comment will exclusively be on the decision under Article 9.

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