Spiralkampagnen: How did Denmark control the birth rate in Greenland?
Recently, numerous women in Greenland have come forward to complain about being fitted with an intrauterine device (IUD) without their consent or knowledge. The Greenlandic and Danish governments have decided to launch a two-year investigation into the matter.
In order to better understand the context of the problem and its roots, a tiny look at history might help. Greenland became a Danish colony in 1721 and remained so until 1953. Modernisation and population growth came after 1953, and the population of Greenland had almost doubled by 1970, with the country having the highest birth rate in the world at the time. The modernisation was financed by the Danish government, so the fact that Greenland was no longer officially a colony did not mean that Denmark’s influence over Greenland had disappeared. Some progress was made in 1979, when Greenland achieved home rule (limited self-governance) and established its first government. Greenland was allowed to manage its domestic affairs in health, education, taxation, and infrastructure. However, it took until 2009 for the country to become a self-governed nation, when its government took over the management of natural resources and got a bigger say in foreign affairs. Greenland is still a territory within the kingdom of Denmark.
Other questions that may arise concern the form of contraception used. What is an IUD, how effective is it, and what sort of health risk might it pose for the people that have it? An IUD, also called a coil, is a form of long-term reversible contraception. Nowadays, there are two types: the hormonal IUD and the copper IUD. The hormonal IUD releases progestin hormones which prevent ovulation and lower the chances of fertilization and egg implantation in the case that ovulation occurs. The copper IUD, as the name suggests, contains copper, which is a spermicide. The IUD is a very effective method of contraception. Today, less than 1 person in 100 with an IUD will get pregnant in a given year. It is relatively safe too. The biggest risk associated with getting an IUD fitted, is perforation of the uterus. It sounds serious and terrifying and has to be repaired surgically, but the chances of it occurring are very low. Other side-effects of having a coil include heavier and irregular menstrual bleeding, especially in the first months after implantation. In the past, however, IUDs were not the small, T-shaped devices that we see today. The type of IUD that was used in Greenland is called Lippes Loop. It was S-shaped and bigger than today’s IUDs. Its shape made it more likely to cause bleeding and pain.
With all the background information out of the way, one question remains: what exactly happened in Greenland? From 1966 to 1974, the Danish government tried to control the birth rate of the Inuit population by launching its “coil campaign” (spiralkampagne in Danish). The practice affected roughly half of the fertile girls and women in Greenland at the time. A staggering 4500 girls and women, some of them as young as 12 years old, had an IUD implanted. The parents of the girls often did not consent, and the teenagers themselves had no idea what was being done to them. For many years the issue was ignored, and the victims stayed silent due to trauma and shame, but a podcast called Spiralkampagnen by the journalists Celine Klint and Anne Pilegaard Petersen brought the campaign to the attention of the public, sparking a reaction from politicians.
Naja Lyberth, a victim of the practice, was one of the first women to speak out, and her example and encouragement brought stories from other women to light. She states that the procedure of having the coil implanted was painful and frightening. Other girls suffered from agonising pain and bleeding. Some of the women had complications so serious that they had to have a hysterectomy. Others only found out that they had an IUD years later, when they were trying unsuccessfully to conceive. Having an IUD implanted without informed consent was a traumatising experience, and it took away the bodily autonomy of the women involved.
This is not the only example of Denmark abusing its colony Greenland. In 1951, 22 Inuit children, aged four to nine, were taken from their homes in Greenland and transported to Denmark in order to learn Danish and adapt to Danish culture. It did not have a happy ending. When 16 of them returned to Greenland after year and a half, they were placed in an orphanage and forced to attend a Danish-language school. They became isolated from their families and forgot their mother tongue. This loss of identity led to many of the children suffering with mental health issues later in life. Various Danish politicians refused to take responsibility and apologise over the years, but in 2020, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen finally sent letters of apology to the six surviving children, now in their 70s. They also received monetary compensation from the government. This kind of attempt to “civilise” indigenous people is very similar to experiments at boarding schools for Native Americans in the US and Canada.
The full investigation into the coil campaign is still in its early stages. Even so, it seems very clear that the Danish authorities did something inhumane (some people go as far as to call it a genocide) by trying to curb Greenland’s growing birth rate in such a way. People should always have the choice to make informed decisions when it comes to their own bodies.
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