In 2013, the Federation of Catholic Families in Europe (FAFCE) filed a collective complaint to the European Committee of Social Rights claiming that Sweden’s failure to establish a legal and policy framework governing conscience-based refusals by medical practitioners resulted in a violation of the European Social Charter’s right to protection of health as well as the prohibition of discrimination with respect to objecting medical providers and medical students. To that end, FAFCE alleged that permitting practitioners to refuse to perform abortions was necessary to promote good health for health care workers.
The Committee ruled that the Charter’s Article 11, governing the right to protection of health, “does not impose on states a positive obligation to provide a right to conscientious objection for healthcare workers,” and as such it “does not confer a right to conscientious objection on the staff of the health system of a State Party.” Rather, the Committee explained that Article 11 is “primarily concerned with the guaranteeing access to adequate health care, and this means in cases of maternity that the primary beneficiaries are the pregnant women.” Therefore, it found that Article 11 was not applicable to FAFCE’s claim seeking to recognize a ‘right to conscientious objection’ to abortion care under the Charter; the related claim concerning discrimination against objectors failed for the same reason.
Separately, FAFCE also alleged that the Swedish Board of Health and Welfare had been too liberal in permitting abortions under various circumstances. In addressing these contentions under Article 11, the Committee held that Sweden was within its rights to legalize abortion under a wide range of circumstances, and therefore found the state to be in compliance with its obligations under the Charter.