UN Human Rights Body Gives Pass to Iceland’s Targeting of Disabled Children

By | January 27, 2022

The representative from Iceland presenting her country's report at the UPR.

GENEVA, January 27 (C-Fam) It was Iceland’s turn to have its human rights record reviewed by other UN member states on Tuesday.  The Nordic country, which has faced scrutiny for its extremely high rate of selective abortion of children with Down syndrome, was urged to combat this discrimination, and to increase support for all persons with disabilities.

Iceland drew international headlines in 2017 when CBS News reported that Iceland had come close to “eradicating Down syndrome births.”  The resulting outrage prompted the nation’s government to issue a statement clarifying that there was not a government policy to eliminate Down syndrome.  Nevertheless, the evidence of a discriminatory cultural standard was clear from the stark data that showed nearly 100% of children with the diagnosis were aborted.

At a UN human rights meeting on Tuesday in Geneva, only two governments criticized Iceland on the question of Down syndrome.  The delegate from the Philippines said Iceland should “take immediate and effective steps to combat discrimination against persons with disabilities, particularly those with Down syndrome and strengthen public awareness campaigns to uphold their rights and provide comprehensive support and assistance to concerned persons and their families.”

Iran also specifically called on Iceland to address discrimination against persons with Down syndrome.

The criticism was part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a human rights mechanism in which every country in the UN system undergoes a human rights checkup by its fellow members and receives specific recommendations on how it can improve its record.  These recommendations are not binding, and the recipient country subsequently responds to each in turn by either “supporting” or “noting” it.

Civil society organizations and other stakeholders also participate in the UPR by submitting reports in advance of a country’s review.  C-Fam, the publisher of the Friday Fax, submitted a joint report with the Jerome Lejeune Foundation USA that specifically criticized Iceland on discrimination against children with Down syndrome.

In its own report to the UPR, the government of Iceland touted its new and even more liberal abortion law. Where Iceland did have an explicitly discriminatory policy regarding Down syndrome in that women could get much later abortions if they received a diagnosis of fetal abnormality. Their new law enacted in 2019 simply raised the gestational limit for everyone. Disability rights groups have noted that the discriminatory use of selective abortion remains unaddressed. Critics point out that the only maternal hospital in Iceland pressures women to get the Down syndrome test.

Iceland isn’t the only country with high levels of abortion for Down syndrome children. Denmark has a rate of 98%, the United Kingdom aborts 90%, and while reliable statistics for the United States are difficult to find, estimates put the rate at around 65%.

Iceland is one of the last countries to be reviewed in the third cycle of the UPR.  It is notable for being by far the most aggressive country in using the UPR to promote abortion in other countries: in the third cycle alone, Iceland recommended 44 times that countries liberalize their abortion laws or increase access to it.  France, which comes in second, trails far behind with 26 recommendations.  By far the majority of countries—162 out of 193—have made no such recommendations at all.