My family has spent a lot of time at Landspítali, the major hospital in the capital of Iceland.
For over a year, our five-year-old son has been undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia. Our youngest son, born this April, also spent two months at the hospital as doctors ran tests on him, finding a genetic mutation in his X chromosome that only two other people in the world have been diagnosed with.
Every day, as I walked into the intensive care unit at the hospital, I looked over a wall of pictures of young children and teenagers holding up photos of themselves as premature babies. They had been born after as little as 21 or 22 weeks of pregnancy. It was a monument to the lives that were saved.
Meanwhile, the cultural conversation in the rest of Iceland seemed so distant from what I saw in the hospital. There were talks of new legislation pushing to make abortion available as late as the 22nd week of pregnancy. And this month, the issue of abortion in Iceland took the internet by storm, with a CBS News report on how the country (population 340,000) is on the verge of eliminating Down syndrome.
What sounded like an impressive medical achievement was quickly revealed to be a spin on our heartbreaking reality. Only two to three children a year are born with Down syndrome since nearly 100 percent of mothers whose tests show a high likelihood of the condition end up choosing abortion.
Those of us who value life in the womb see Iceland is not eliminating Down syndrome, but terminating babies who have it (or could have it) before they are even born.
The Icelandic media, taking up the CBS story, have even shifted to use new language around abortion. They use a term suggested by a government think tank—Þungunarrof, which translates to “pregnancy discontinuity”—rather than fóstureyðing, “fetus termination.”
In such a small country—where just a few years ago, 4,375 births were reported compared to 951 abortions—people do not like to talk about abortion in a critical way at all. When it comes up, we are aware that there are likely plenty of individuals around us who have gotten an abortion.
It’s been a surreal moment for our family following the birth of our youngest son, whose prenatal tests did not indicate any abnormalities related to his genetic mutation (it’s rare enough that it’s not on a doctor’s radar). People have cheered us on, hoping for the best for our son and us as we seek to live with whatever the future may hold. I find myself wondering, though, if there was a test for diagnosing his condition, how many of those now cheering for him would’ve decided to end his life in the womb? What about my oldest son, who has severe autism?
Given how dramatic the abortion rate, near-universal prenatal testing, and Iceland’s approach to Down syndrome, we have reason to be afraid of modern eugenics—what I see as a direct result of our society no longer being anchored to a moral standard.
Iceland’s National Lutheran Church regularly takes to big media platforms to condemn violence in sports such as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), but in the wake of this news article concerning Down syndrome in Iceland, the silence was deafening. The few priests in the national church who want to stand for truth may take issue with its approach to abortion, but most likely experience pressure not to speak out.
There is a small remnant of churches in Iceland that remain dedicated to Scripture alone as their supreme authority for living and theology. Many have faithfully preached and served for decades, only to experience a decline in interest and attendance. They have grown exhausted in the fight to defend biblical truth.
I pastor a small, four-year-old Baptist church plant in Reykjavík, and I know the feeling. Because we hold on to a biblical view on sexuality, abortion, and life in general, we are viewed as a strange minority, almost as sardines trying to swim against the heavy current of modern thinking. To me, that’s nothing new. In almost every era the church has been viewed as strange, so we stand on truth, remembering where our strength, joy, and hope comes from.
We see that those churches without Scripture as their highest authority have slowly made themselves irrelevant, and society around them has developed a morality based on no foundation at all.
Abortions have skyrocketed over the past 55 years; between 1960 and 2014 (the most recent year statistics were available), total numbers of births dropped by a few hundred, while the number of abortions shot up to over 900 a year—17 times as many as decades before.
Iceland has also become the world leader in out-of-wedlock births per capita; in recent years, less than a third of babies in Iceland are born to married parents. Our country also sits as the sixth-most atheistic nation in the world and has recently been dubbed “the most godless country in Europe.”
Ultimately abortions are antithetical to the gospel message the church proclaims, as we marvel over the fact that Jesus says to undeserving sinners: “I will lay my life down for my sheep,” and so he did, taking on our sin and shame, and the debt that stood against us and nailing it to the cross. Abortion instead demands of an innocent life, “You will lay your life down for me.”
This is the time for the Icelandic church to find its strength in the Lord and preach the precious gospel entrusted to us to proclaim. The way to counter Iceland’s “elimination” of Down syndrome and culture of abortion will come through the Lord. He will transform hearts of individuals that will transform a nation, and he has allowed his church to take part in his work here.
We have our work cut out for us. As pro-life advocates around the globe discussed Iceland’s abortion rate for Down syndrome, our country was wrapping up a festival called “Hinsegin dagar,” or “Different Days,” which includes Reykjavik’s gay pride celebration. Contrasting the approach to Down syndrome with this week-long event dedicated to celebrating diversity, I was struck by the narrow kind of diversity our nation has opted to champion.
When society forfeits its appeal to a higher authority and gives itself to humanistic morality, the Christian belief that all have value as image bearers of the one true God of the universe becomes the exception.
Pray that the church in Iceland would boldly take a stance for truth. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I pray that we would follow Luther’s example. When asked to recant his teachings, he responded, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”
Luther was fully aware of the costs that might come with his stance. It may cost us, too.
Jesus told a parable of man who sold everything he had with joy to buy a field with the treasure he sought since he knew its worth (Matt. 13:44). So too may we remember the worth of Christ. In secular Iceland, we may lose friends, status, or respect for standing for our faith, for the truth, and for life, but in the words of missionary Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Gunnar Ingi Gunnarsson lives in Reykjavík, Iceland with his wife, Svava María, and their three children. Gunnar is the pastor of Loftstofan Baptistakirkja, currently the only doctrinally Reformed church in Iceland and the only Baptist church in Reykjavík. He is also the president of The Iceland Project, a church-planting initiative. You can follow Gunnar on Instagram, sign up for his monthly ministry updates, or contact him at gunnar (at) loftstofan.is.