No Increase in Pregnancy Terminations Following Law Change

Iceland's Althing

Changes to Iceland’s abortion law that took effect in 2019 did not impact the number of pregnancies terminated in the country, according to a newly published report from the Directorate of Health. The law was heavily debated when it was introduced to Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, and criticised by the Bishop of Iceland, among others. The changes appear to have shortened the time between the decision to terminate a pregnancy and the procedure itself. RÚV reported first.

According to the latest figures from the Directorate of Health, the frequency of pregnancy termination in 2022 was similar to what it was before the law was changed in 2019. The number of terminations was slightly lower in 2020 and 2021, which may be explained by gathering restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Termination of pregnancy permitted until 22nd week

Under the new law, it is legal to request a termination of pregnancy up to the end of the 22nd week of pregnancy, instead of the 16th week, as the law previously allowed. However, the law still indicates that the procedure should be carried out as soon as possible, preferably before the 12th week of pregnancy.

The previous law in Iceland also permitted termination of pregnancy after the 16th week, but only due to unequivocal medical reasons. Such terminations required written authorisation from a Directorate of Health committee. This is no longer the case under the new law.

The old law was changed in part due its violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as it allowed the termination of pregnancy after the 16th week if there was “a high likelihood of malformation, genetic defects or damage to the fetus.” The law was first put under review in 2016, culminating with the introduction of the now-approved bill in 2019, by then-Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir.

Supported by medical professionals

Professional medical associations expressed support for the new law when it was introduced. These included the Association of Icelandic Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Association of Icelandic Nurses, the National University Hospital of Iceland, the Directorate of Health, and the Icelandic Social Workers’ Association. The Bishop of Iceland Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir wrote an op-ed in Morgunblaðið newspaper opposing the changes, and People’s Party MP Inga Sæland also vocally opposed them at the time. Bjarni Benediktsson, chairman of the Independence Party and now Prime Minister, was the only government minister to vote against the bill.

Despite the legislation being relaxed in 2019, there is no evidence that the number of pregnancy terminations after the 16th week has increased in Iceland. On the other hand, a larger proportion of terminations are carried out earlier in the pregnancy, with nearly 90% carried out before the ninth week.

Vote of No Confidence Felled

bjarni benediktsson

The People’s Party and Pirate Party motion of no confidence against Iceland’s coalition government was felled with 35 votes to 25. The motion was introduced in response to Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s resignation as Prime Minister and her replacement by Independence Party Chairman Bjarni Benediktsson. The bill’s supporters were calling for the dissolution of Parliament by June and an election in September.

Unsurprising outcome

People’s Party MP and Chairperson Inga Sæland, who introduced the bill, told RÚV that the result of the vote did not surprise her. “Of course not. They have 38 MPs, with a very good and strong majority as we know.”

Hildur Sverrisdóttir, Chair of the Independence Party’s parliamentary group, also stated that the vote’s outcome was as expected, adding that “[i]t’s good this is over with and we can continue our work.”

Ministries play musical chairs

Prime Minister of Iceland since 2017, Katrín Jakobsdóttir announced earlier this month that she was resigning from the post to run in Iceland’s Presidential election on June 1. As a result, the governing Left-Green Movement, Independence Party, and Progressive Party reassigned ministry appointments, making Bjarni Benediktsson Prime Minister.

Bjarni resigned as Finance Minister just last October following a ruling that he had mishandled the sale of state-owned bank Íslandsbanki. Less than a week later, it was announced that Bjarni would be appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, swapping roles with Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, who took over as Minister of Finance.

Broad disapproval of Bjarni as PM

Nearly four out of every five people (78%) surveyed said they disapproved of Bjarni Benediktsson, leader of the Independence Party, ascending to the office of prime minister. According to a new poll by Prósent, only 13% said they approved of Bjarni, Heimildin reports. Almost 42,000 people in Iceland, equivalent to around 15% of voters in the country, have signed a petition titled “Bjarni Benediktsson does not have my support as Prime Minister.”

Read more about Bjarni Benediktsson.

Pirates and People’s Party Challenge Coalition Government

Cabinet of Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson

Inga Sæland, leader of the People’s Party, has submitted a motion of no confidence directed at the coalition government of Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson. The motion is co-signed by MPs from the Pirate Party.

The entire cabinet is the object of the motion, which also includes a clause calling for new elections for Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, this September.

Ministers not held accountable

“In our view, ministers have not been held accountable when they swap cabinet positions instead of resigning and admitting their violations in office,” Inga told Vísir. She added that Bjarni, who became prime minister last week after Katrín Jakobsdóttir resigned to run for the office of president, had left the ministry of finance last fall after failing to confirm to guidelines during the privatisation of Íslandsbanki bank.

“We also think it’s in bad taste that Svandís Svavarsdóttir, who as minister of food, agriculture and fisheries violated law and maybe even the constitution itself, has been promoted as well and is now minister of the interior,” Inga said.

Little hope of success

Inga said that she expects most, if not all, MPs from opposition parties to support the motion and hopes that it will be scheduled for debate as soon as tomorrow. She admitted, however, that the chances of the motion carrying were low.

“They have 38 MPs and they’re not going to vote themselves out of power,” she said of the coalition MPs from the Independence Party, Progressive Party and Left-Green Movement. Members of parliament in Alþingi are 63 in total.

She said that the motion was a symbolic gesture first and foremost. “Behind it stand some 40 to 50 thousand voters who have signed a petition to protest Bjarni Benediktsson becoming the head of the entire executive branch in the country,” Inga said, referring to an online petition started following the cabinet reshuffling.

Iceland Violated Right to Free Elections, ECHR Finds

Alþingishúsið

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found this morning that Iceland violated the right to free elections and the right to an effective remedy in a case that concerned the 2021 elections to Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament. Iceland will have to pay the two applicants in the case €13,000 each in respect of non-pecuniary damages.

Recount irregularities

The case concerned irregularities in the recount of votes in the Northwest constituency that changed the allocation of seats in Alþingi after the 2021 elections. The applicants in the case, Guðmundur Gunnarsson of the Reform Party and Magnús Davíð Norðdahl of the Pirate Party, were both unsuccessful candidates in the constituency, the smallest of Iceland’s six constituencies.

“When the results came in, there was only a thin margin of votes in the Northwest and South constituencies, which could have affected the allocation of levelling seats,”  the ECHR’s press release reads. Levelling seats are distributed nationally between parties that receive at least 5% of the total vote. “A recount was ordered and it changed the standings in the Northwest constituency, leading to Mr Gunnarsson losing his levelling seat.”

Lacked impartiality safeguards

Certain irregularities were found to have taken place during the recount, including the unsecured and unsupervised storage of ballots between the first count and the recount.

The ECHR found that Alþingi’s handling of the applicants’ complaints “had lacked necessary impartiality safeguards and had been characterised by virtually unrestrained discretion”. The procedure meant that the applicants did not have an effective domestic remedy, which violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Bring the Folk Stories Home” MPs demand

Jón Árnason, collector of Folk Stories

The Icelandic Folk Stories, or “þjóðsögur”, are a big part of Icelandic culture. They tend to concern the interactions between people and supernatural creatures, such as trolls, elves, ghosts and magical beings. Now, members of Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, are demanding that the historic manuscript which contains them be returned from Germany to Iceland, RÚV reports.

Lost manuscript found

Inspired by the brothers Grimm, librarian Jón Árnason collected the stories in the 19th century to be published in two volumes in 1862 and 1864. The original manuscript was sent to Germany for printing, and remains there to this day. It is stored in the Bavarian State Library in Munich after having been discovered among the possessions of the father of Konrad Maurer, who assisted Jón with the publication.

Important for Icelandic identity

“It’s not appropriate that our Icelandic Folk Stories be stored anywhere but in Iceland,” Jakob Frímann Magnússon, MP for the People’s Party, said. He and fourteen other MPs have put forth the motion in Alþingi to have the manuscript returned.

The MPs want the Minister of Culture and Business Affairs to ask for the manuscript back, as the Folk Stories collection was important for the development of Icelandic national identity. “These are remarkable stories and the originals of course belong in Iceland,” Jakob Frímann added.

Prime Minister Reflects on Poor Polling

Katrín Jakobsdóttir Bjarni Benediktsson Sigurður Ingi Ráðherra

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, leader of the Left-Green Movement, told RÚV today that low poll numbers should cause the party’s leadership as a whole to reflect on their position. The party is polling at 4.7% in Gallup’s latest poll, their worst numbers since the turn of the century, and would likely not get a single MP elected to Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, if this were to be the outcome in an election.

Two terms in a broad coalition

The Left-Green Movement formed a coalition government with the conservative Independence Party and the centrist Progressive Party in 2017. The coalition continued after the 2021 election, despite Katrín’s party losing three seats in Alþingi. The party has been criticised by both current and former members for conceding too many of their policy objectives and making compromises with their coalition partners.

At a party council meeting this weekend, Katrín emphasised that everyone in the leadership, including herself, should consider their position. She told RÚV, however, that she was not quitting as party leader. “But I think it’s prudent when the polls are like this, and it would be irresponsible not to do so, to consider our position and that goes for me and others in the Movement’s leadership.”

Better communication

“I don’t think this poll reflects the success we’ve had in leading a coalition government through challenging times,” Katrín said, admitting that previous poll numbers have also been unfavourable. “It should make all of us in the Movement consider what we’re doing. It’s also necessary to better communicate the success we’ve been able to achieve.”

Katrín added that she believes that the Left-Green Movement still has an important place in Icelandic politics and that she hopes for an upswing. “I wouldn’t have been in politics for 20 years without being an optimistic person,” she said.

Icelandic Lawyer Urges Action on Gaza Visa Holders

Rafah_Border_Crossing

The Icelandic government is working too slowly to rescue Icelandic visa holders from Gaza, says a lawyer representing one Palestinian family waiting to be reunited. She has submitted a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman due to the government’s lack of action in their case. The lawyer says Iceland’s government is responsible for the individuals on the basis of humanitarian law.

Wife and children stuck in Gaza

Jóna Þórey Pétursdóttir is a lawyer representing a Palestinian family who has been granted family reunification visas by Icelandic authorities. The father has been in Iceland since February 2023, but his wife and children are still in Gaza, despite having been granted a family reunification visa by Icelandic authorities last December.

“The issue is about the speed of the case and that the Icelandic government is responsible, both on the basis of humanitarian law and human rights obligations. The interest are, of course, the right to life, prohibition of inhumane treatment, and their right to family life,” she told RÚV.

Children in immediate danger

The International Court of Justice in the Hague has confirmed that there is a possibility a genocide is occurring in Gaza. As Iceland is a party to the Geneva Convention, the Icelandic government is obliged to prevent genocide and complicity in genocide.        “There are three children there and they are in immediate danger of suffering and death,” Jóna stated.

Jóna says her complaint is now being processed by the Parliamentary Ombudsman. She adds that it was submitted in order to maintain pressure on authorities and “get answers about what is really being done and to actually ensure that adequate measures are taken.”

Volunteers have helped 24 out of Gaza

Around 100 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them children, hold Icelandic visas on the basis of family reunification. While other Nordic countries have assisted visa-holders across the Rafah border, Iceland’s government has yet to do so. Meanwhile, a group of Icelandic civilians has already gotten 24 Icelandic visa holders out of Gaza across the Rafah border and continue their efforts. In early February, Icelandic authorities sent three representatives to Cairo to look into the cases, but their efforts have yet to bring any visa-holders across the border.

Icelandic Police Bill to Boost Surveillance Powers

police station reykjavík

Icelandic police would be given increased powers of surveillance if a bill proposed by Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir is passed. RÚV reports that Guðrún introduced the bill in Parliament yesterday. Opposition MP Arndís Anna Kristínardóttir believes the power the bill grants police is too extensive.

The aim of the bill is to strengthen the police’s ability to respond to organised crime and to give it the authority to monitor individuals who have not committed a crime. To have this authority, there must be a suspicion that an individual is connected to criminal organisations and could potentially commit a serious offence.

The bill would grant police the right to carry out such surveillance in public places, but not within private homes. The police would not need a court order to carry out such surveillance, although a special steering group that includes police officials would have to approve the measure.  The Minister of Justice stated that the bill would bring Icelandic legislation closer to legislation in other Nordic countries.

No independent supervision of police

Pirate Party MP Arndís Anna Kristínardóttir criticised the bill for not including any independent supervision of police and the use of this surveillance permission. “What is being done here is that the police are being given authority to monitor ordinary citizens who have done nothing wrong and even without any suspicion that the person has done anything wrong,” she stated. The Minister of Justice stated that the bill also includes increased supervision of police through establishing a monitoring group for police work and regular reports on the matter to Parliament.

Read More: Police Powers in Iceland

The Ministry of Justice, under the leadership of the Independence Party, has been pushing for increased police powers for some time. In 2022, then Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson introduced a crime bill with similar measures to the bill Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir introduced yesterday. It was criticised by the Icelandic Bar Association as well as opposition MPs.

“There are, of course, some conditions in the bill, but it gives the police authority to monitor people’s movements without they themselves being under suspicion of criminal conduct, whether or not they have committed a crime or are preparing to commit a crime,” Sigurður Örn Hilmarsson, the chairman of the Icelandic Bar Association, stated at the time. He suggested that establishing a dedicated organisation such as an intelligence service would be a better way of investigating the most serious crimes, such as terrorism or organised crime.

Government to Buy Grindavík Homes

Grindavík

The Icelandic government is offering to buy all residential housing owned by individuals in Grindavík and take over the mortgages on the properties. The cost is estimated to be ISK 61 Billion [$443 Million, €411 Million], according to a press release from the ministries in charge of the programme.

The January 14 volcanic eruption near Grindavík destroyed three houses, caused crevasses to form across town, and displaced the 3,800 inhabitants for the foreseeable future. The town had already been evacuated once before, on November 10 last year, due to seismic activity. The latest eruption on February 8 damaged a hot water pipeline, cutting off heating for Reykjanes homes.

Bill introduced this week

During a meeting of the cabinet of ministers Friday, a bill on the purchase was agreed upon. It was put into an online consultation process and will be introduced in Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament this week. Over 300 comments on the bill’s contents have already been submitted. The government has conferred with opposition party parliamentarians and introduced the bill to the municipal government of Grindavík.

A real estate company, Þórkatla, will be established to handle the purchase and management of the properties, which it will purchase for 95% of their official fire insurance value, with the relevant mortgages deducted. The company will be financed by the treasury and with loans from financial institutions. The state is expected to receive reimbursements from the Natural catastrophe insurance of Iceland for any properties rendered uninhabitable.

Grindavík residents will have until July 1 to apply to enter the programme and have their homes bought.

School Children Strike for Palestine

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

Students from capital area elementary schools gathered outside Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, on Austurvöllur square today to protest on behalf of Palestine. In a speech delivered by the organisers, the children demanded support from the Icelandic government for the Palestinian people.

Children from the lower secondary school Hagaskóli spearheaded the protest, encouraging students to leave class at 10:30 and assemble. They were inspired from visiting the protest camp on Austurvöllur earlier this year. Most of the Palestinian protesters who camped throughout January have family members who have been granted residence visas in Iceland on the basis of family reunification but are still stuck in Gaza.

Called for a ceasefire

“We’re protesting the genocide in Palestine,” organisers of the school strike said, according to Heimildin. “Authorities! Stop turning away people escaping genocide. Reunited families, like promised. Take a stance on the genocide, push for a ceasefire and a free Palestine in the international sphere. We, Icelandic students, object to Iceland being complicit in genocide.”

The children made five demands to the Icelandic authorities, calling for reunification of Palestinian families who hold Icelandic visas, supporting Palestinian refugees, taking a stance against genocide, meeting with Palestinian protesters, and pushing for ceasefire and peace on the international stage.

Eurovision controversy

“This is a genocide and nothing is being done about it,” Arnaldur Árnason, a student in Tjarnarskóli said, adding that he thought it was strange that Israel was allowed to compete in the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest and that Iceland should pull out in protest. “Russia was not allowed to participate, but Israel is still allowed to compete. It’s disgusting. I don’t understand how this is allowed.”