A win at the continent’s top human rights court could benefit all Christian healthcare providers
By Bonnie Pritchett
(WNS)–A Swedish midwife denied a job because of her pro-life views is taking her case to the European Court of Human Rights. On three separate occasions, potential employers refused to hire Ellinor Grimmark, and recently the Swedish Labor Court upheld those decisions, declining to consider international conscience protections, her attorneys claim.
Rebecca Ahlstrand, an attorney with Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers representing Grimmark, said her client was disappointed but not surprised by the Swedish court’s April 12 decision. Media depictions of Grimmark have not been kind, exacerbating the caricature of someone opposed to abortion, Ahlstrand said. And the few supporters she does have wonder whether her case will have broader implications for Christians trying to live out their faith in the very secular country.
“The media climate is very hostile and several government representatives and politicians have made statements against her case,” Ahlstrand told me via email. “A politician and former coordinator against extremism at a panel on Islamist extremism in 2015 stated that ‘those who refuse to perform abortions are in my opinion extreme religious practitioners’ not unlike jihadists.”
Grimmark has exhausted all appeals in Sweden, failing at each level to convince courts to consider the conscience protections prescribed under Article 9 of the European Convention. A win at the European Court of Human Rights could bring a monetary settlement for Grimmark and conscience protections to Sweden. A loss most likely would bar her from working as a midwife in Sweden and could have a chilling effect on existing freedom of conscience laws.
As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights and a member of the Council of Europe, Sweden agrees to incorporate the international codes into Swedish law. Where applicable, international law is supposed to supersede national statutes.
Ahlstrand said it is not unusual for member countries to violate the convention but, increasingly, medical professionals like Grimmark are finding themselves at the mercy of employers who narrowly interpret laws in favor of abortion rights.
Swedish courts have similarly ignored the international codes, one of which specifically provides conscience protections for healthcare professionals who do not want to participate in abortion, Grimmark’s attorneys said. The majority of European countries manage to strike a balance between abortion rights and freedom of conscience, including Sweden’s neighbor Norway, where Grimmark has moved to work as a midwife while her lawsuit advances.
Grimmark’s decision to become a midwife came mid-life. At 40 years old she left her catering business to study nursing. Nearing the end of her studies in 2013, Grimmark asked her supervisor about future placements. She hoped to continue working in labor and delivery in a hospital or clinic but requested she not be required to assist with abortions—an accommodation that should have been afforded her by Swedish and international law.
“As a result, the clinic canceled her [existing] contract before the first day of work,” Alliance Defending Freedom International wrote in November. “The head of the maternity ward simply left a telephone message saying that ‘she was no longer welcome to work with them’ and questioned ‘whether a person with such views actually can become a midwife.’”
ADF International is assisting in the case.
Grimmark sued, alleging religious discrimination and the clinic’s failure to adhere to international conscience protection codes. Two more clinics turned her away for the same reason. She lost the first trial in 2015 and was fined the equivalent of $106,000 in government legal fees.
One of the clinics may also have rescinded its offer of employment because of media attention about her lawsuit against the first clinic. Grimmark spoke freely with reporters who contacted her. She told one reporter she was grateful for a pending job at another clinic. But when that director read the newspaper the next day, she called Grimmark and told her there would be no job.
“It is very clear that she was fired simply because she used her freedom of speech,” Ahlstrand said.
While Swedish clinics refuse to hire a pro-life midwife, the nation faces a shortfall in the profession. At the time one hospital rejected Grimmark, it was trying to fill eight midwife positions, Ahlstrand said.
Preparation for a hearing before the European Court of Human Rights will take about six months. The outcome could impact all nations party to the European Convention. If Grimmark loses her case, hospitals in other European countries may find themselves similarly short-staffed, Ahlstrand warned. And pro-life healthcare providers could find themselves facing a tough career choice: “It could, of course, give some wind in the sails of those who wish to restrict the right to freedom of conscience.”