Spiralkampagnen: how Denmark used women’s bodies to regulate the population in Greenland


Ittoqqortoormiit (East Greenland). Last week, as I entered the cramped tourist agency in this town of 354 inhabitants, the director spoke almost instantly about the scandal that has been shaking the local press and Greenland for the past few weeks. On her desk, which has been refurbished since my last visit, she lays out documents from the time, in French, and asks me to take a closer look. In the 1960s, the Danish authorities would have launched an active policy of regulating the Greenlandic population, and the documents she gives me contain precise information about the town.

Reflection of the Ittoqqortoormiit Hospital in the melting ice pack. © Photo : Tanguy Sandré, 20 juin 2022.

In the 1960s, faced with Greenland’s growing population, the Danish authorities launched an active policy to regulate the Greenlandic population. According to the Danish media DR, which is at the origin of the revelations, from 1966 onwards, thousands of IUDs were placed on Greenlandic women and girls from the age of 13[1]. Between 1966 and 1970, 4,500 Greenlandic women and girls were reportedly involved, or one of two fertile women at the time. The campaign is said to have continued beyond 1975. According to several women who are testifying today, everything took place without informed consent, and some minors were summoned by the school doctor without their parents even being informed. In 1970s, the law was changed so that doctors in Greenland could guide young girls from the age of 15 on contraception without their parents’ consent. Naja Lyberth was 14 years old in 1976 when she and the other girls in her class in Maniitsoq were called to the hospital; she now accuses Denmark of “taking her virginity”[2]. Inge Thomassen says that in 1995, during a medical examination, she realised that she had been wearing an IUD for years, which would have made her permanently infertile[3]. These testimonies are not isolated[4][5], this obstetric violence may have affected several hundred Greenlandic women. In addition, at the time, intrauterine devices were larger than those used today, which could cause even more pain and bleeding and have significant long-term effects.

« We are talking about a genocide »

The Greenlandic political class is unanimous in condemning the violent policy of the Danish authorities. In the Folketing, the Danish parliament, Aki-Matilda Høegh-Dam, a Greenlandic MP (Siumut, S) since 2019, denounces what, for her, “borders on genocide”[6]. For Anaja Chemnitz Larsen, also a Greenlandic (Inuit Ataqatigiit, IA) member of the Folketing, “it shows a view of humanity that Greenlanders are different from Danes (…) by considering Greenlandic women as incapable of making a decision about their own bodies.” “This is an example of objectification and politicisation of the female body that is totally unacceptable. I find it cruel that the campaign included children under 18 and girls who were not sexually active (…) We need to get to the bottom of this and make sure that no more stories get buried. We must get rid of any policy where women are deprived of responsibility and co-determination of their own bodies”, says Naaja H. Nathanielsen (IA), Naalakkersuisoq (Minister) for Finance and Gender Equality.

For Aki-Matilda Høegh-Dam (right), the forced IUD insertion campaign “borders on genocide”. © Photo : Liselotte Sabroe.

Revisiting colonial wounds

Hans Enoksen, former president of the Naleraq (N) party, hopes that the case will be taken to the European Court of Human Rights, as he points out that the limitation of Greenland’s population growth is now having a significant impact on the country’s economy. Moreover, this scandal is reminiscent of other colonial wounds, such as that of the “experimental children”, 22 Greenlandic children aged between 4 and 9 who were removed from their homes and sent to Denmark as part of an experiment in 1951.[7][8], the aim was to ‘modernise’ them to become leaders when they returned to Greenland. On this subject, the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, recently offered a moderate apology: “the intentions at the time were certainly good, but it came at a price, and the consequences were inhumane”[9]. Or the “fatherless children” story, which concerns children born out of wedlock before 1963 in West Greenland and 1974 in the rest of Greenland, who were not allowed to know their father, inherit from him or take the family name. For Naja Dyrendom Graugaard, a post-doctoral fellow at Aalborg University, these stories challenge the common narrative that Denmark has been a good and forgiving colonial power in Greenland, both before and after the colonial era. As Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Danish Prime Minister from 2001 to 2009, said in 2008: ‘Denmark and the Danes have nothing to be ashamed of in Greenland, on the contrary. Denmark has made a fantastic and generous effort to develop Greenlandic society. We are proud of this effort, and it could serve as a model for others.[10].

Since the Self-Government Act of 2009, Greenland has had greater autonomy, but Greenland-Danish relations are still marked by strong colonial remanences, often taking the form of an obscure history draped in silence. In 2013, the Greenlandic government (Naalakkersuisut), then led by Aleqa Hammond (S), decided to set up a reconciliation commission, the purpose of which was to examine the colonial effects and legacy in Greenland. Rachael Lorna Johnstone, professor of law at the University of Greenland (Ilisimatusarfik), is critical of the results of this commission. “Perhaps it is time for a truth commission” she said, which would be investigated by the Greenland authorities.

Independent investigation to be complicated

Today, for Aki-Matilda Høegh-Dam, Greenland should start collecting evidence and testimonies in order to eventually bring the case before an international tribunal[11].On 2 June 2022, the Inatsisartut, Greenland’s parliament, unanimously decided to ask Denmark to open an “independent enquiry into the Danish health authorities’ pregnancy prevention practices in Greenland between the mid-1960s and the end of 1991 [when Greenland regained the health prerogatives]”[12]. The Danish Ministry of Health will be in charge of the investigation, with the support of the Greenlandic government, says Mimi Karlsen (IA), Naalakkersuisoq for Health. The investigation will be complicated, however, as the files have been transferred between several different authorities over time, and are therefore stored in different places.[13]. However, the Inatsisartut also unanimously decided that Greenland should itself set up a commission, which should determine whether Denmark had complied with the UN’s request for decolonisation by changing Greenland’s status from a colony to an integral part of the Realm in 1953. On 9 June, Naalakkersuisut and the Danish government agreed on a historical study of the relationship between Greenland and Denmark, covering the period from the Second World War to the present day. For Múte Bourup Egede, the Greenlandic Prime Minister, “we have to tell our story. We need to bring out the context of the different decisions that have been taken over the years,” he says. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen also took a step in this direction: “The relationship between Denmark and Greenland is strong and based on mutual respect. But we have recently become aware of cases and processes that show that there are still chapters in our common history that we have not discovered.”[14].

The Greenland Council for Human Rights, as well as experts from the Danish Institute for International Studies and the Department of Human Rights, considered the campaign a violation of women’s human rights[15]. In the absence of proof of a deliberate intention to exterminate the Greenlanders, the qualification of genocide (mentioned above) does not seem to be relevant for the moment.

Initial evidence, including a report from the Danish authorities in 1965, strongly suggests that the ‘Spiralkampagnen’ was born out of concern for the population growth of Greenland, which in 1965 was a Danish county. This population growth was likely to call into question the ‘modernisation’ of Greenland from the 1950s onwards (G-50 and then G-60 programmes), which was becoming more costly than expected. From the end of the 1960s onwards, a stagnation of the population was observed, which continued until the end of the 1970s (see graph below). This stagnation can be explained at least in part by the decrease in the number of births, which was practically divided by three in the 1970s: from 1,674 in 1964 to 638 in 1974.

Change in the Greenland-born population between 1901 and 2021. © Source : StatBank Greenland.

In Ittoqqortoormiit, a massive campaign

Ittoqqortoormiit is a town of 354 inhabitants (2022), located at the mouth of the Kangertittivaq/Scoresby Sund, and is the northernmost community on the east coast of Greenland (70°30′ N 22° W). The village was established in 1925 by Ejnar Mikkelsen, and populated by about 85 Greenlanders, mainly from Ammassalik/Tasiilaq, with the aim of reaffirming Danish sovereignty and blocking further Norwegian expansion on the north-east coast of Greenland. The population gradually grew to 442 in 1967, divided into three settlements: Scorebysund, Kap Tobin and Kap Hope. By 1970, “this previously non-Malthusian population had suddenly and intensively adopted contraceptive methods”.[16].

Town of Ittoqqortoormiit, seen from the ice pack. © Photo : Tanguy Sandré, 20 juin 2022.

It was in the autumn of 1968 that an active and effective campaign for the adoption of IUDs was conducted by Danish Chief Medical Officer W. Mortensen, who was in charge in the Ittoqqortoormiit region. “The proportion of women who received an IUD was very high: 45 out of 63 women aged between 17 and 40 years, and then 8 women asked to have it removed. Of the 18 women who did not receive an IUD, 3 were infertile, one was 30 years old and had never had a child, and for 10 others the last pregnancy was more than four years ago. However, we had shown in our 1968 study that there were virtually no cases of long intervals between pregnancies”[17]. Between 1959 and 1968, the birth rate was 52‰, with an average of 20 births per year, and an average population of 385. After the introduction of birth control, the average annual births for 1969 and 1970 fell to 3, or 7.2‰. Thus, for 1969-1970, the number of births is even lower than in the early years of the community, which was founded in 1924-25, when the population was six times larger. According to Joëlle Robert-Lamblin, an anthropologist who visited the village in 1968 and 1970, just before and just after the IUD campaign, many women told her in 1970: ‘We have no more children, and we don’t understand why’. Following these testimonies, an investigation was carried out in the field at the time. Finding the trace and documenting the context of this disgraceful policy would certainly be, in Ittoqqortoormiit, as in the whole of Greenland, a further step in a slow process of decolonisation.

Pour aller plus loin :

 “Spiralkampagnen”, DR Podcast, 6 mai 2022 : https://www.dr.dk/lyd/p1/spiralkampagnen

Rud, Søren. 2017. Colonialism in Greenland: Tradition, Governance and Legacy. Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-46158-8.

[1] “4.500 grønlandske kvinder og piger fik sat en spiral op: Grønland beder Danmark undersøge forløbet”, DR, Ida Meesenburg, 2 juin 2022 : https://www.dr.dk/nyheder/seneste/4500-groenlandske-kvinder-og-piger-fik-sat-en-spiral-op-groenland-beder-danmark

[2] “Staten tog min mødom”, Sermitsiaq, Martine Lind Kedbs, 30 juin 2021 : https://sermitsiaq.ag/staten-tog-moedom

[3] “Inge Thomassen: Jeg fik også spiral uden at vide det. Og den gjorde mig steril “, KNR, Andrea Christiansen, Christine Hyldal, 28 mai 2022 : https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/inge-thomassen-jeg-fik-ogs%C3%A5-spiral-uden-vide-det-og-den-gjorde-mig-steril

[4] “Gynækolog finder stadig gamle spiraler hos kvinder, der fik dem under spiralkampagnen”, KNR, Nukaaka Tobiassen, Signe Haahr Pedersen, 29 mai 2022 : https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/gyn%C3%A6kolog-finder-stadig-gamle-spiraler-hos-kvinder-der-fik-dem-under-spiralkampagnen

[5] “Arnannguaq Poulsen er en af de tusindvis af kvinder, der fik spiral: Det smerter, at jeg efterfølgende ikke kunne få børn”, KNR, Ann-Sophie Greve Møller, 30 mai 2022 : https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/arnannguaq-poulsen-er-en-af-de-tusindvis-af-kvinder-der-fik-spiral-det-smerter-jeg

[6] “Politiker: Spiral-kampagne var folkemord”, Sermitsiaq, Thomas Munk Veirum, 10 mai 2022 : https://sermitsiaq.ag/politikerspiral-kampagne-folkemord

[7] “Undskylder til ‘eksperimentbørnene’: ‘I blev fremmede i jeres eget liv’”, Altinget, Frederik Gjersen Hansen, 9 mars 2022 : https://www.altinget.dk/boern/artikel/undskylder-til-eksperimentboernene-i-blev-fremmede-i-jeres-eget-liv

[8] “Grønlandske ‘eksperimentbørn’ kræver erstatning fra den danske stat”, DR, Kevin Ahrens, Eva-Marie Møller, 22 novembre 2021 : https://www.dr.dk/nyheder/indland/groenlandske-eksperimentboern-kraever-erstatning-fra-den-danske-stat

[9] “Statsminister undskylder til eksperimentbørn: Konsekvenserne har været umenneskelige”, KNR, Anne Meisner Synnestvedt, Helle Nørrelund, 9 mars 2022 : Sørensenhttps://knr.gl/da/nyheder/statsminister-undskylder-til-eksperimentb%C3%B8rn-konsekvenserne-har-v%C3%A6ret-umenneskelige

[10] “Anders Fogh Rasmussen:Grønland får ingen undskyldning”, KNR, Louise M. Kleemann, 13 juin 2008: https://knr.gl/en/node/133850

[11] “Politiker: Spiral-kampagne var folkemord”, Sermitsiaq, Thomas Munk Veirum, 10 mai 2022 : https://sermitsiaq.ag/politikerspiral-kampagne-folkemord

[12] “Kvinder får krisereaktioner efter spiralskandalen – nu er der hjælp på vej”, KNR, Christine Hyldal, 2 juin 2022 : https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/kvinder-f%C3%A5r-krisereaktioner-efter-spiralskandalen-%E2%80%93-nu-er-der-hj%C3%A6lp-p%C3%A5-vej

[13] “Grønland og Danmark er enige: Der bliver en udredning af spiralskandalen – men det bliver svært”, KNR, Bibi Nathansen, Andreas Wille, 3 juin 2022 : https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/gr%C3%B8nland-og-danmark-er-enige-der-bliver-en-udredning-af-spiralskandalen-men-det-bliver-sv%C3%A6rt

[14] “Danmark og Grønland er klar: Historisk udredning skal sættes i gang nu”, KNR, Christine Hyldal , 9 juin 2022 : https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/danmark-og-gr%C3%B8nland-er-klar-historisk-udredning-skal-s%C3%A6ttes-i-gang-nu

[15] “Råd for menneskerettigheder: Danmark har krænket grønlændernes menneskerettigheder”, KNR, Mads Malik Fuglsang Holm, 12 mai 2022 : https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/r%C3%A5d-menneskerettigheder-danmark-har-kr%C3%A6nket-gr%C3%B8nl%C3%A6ndernes-menneskerettigheder

[16] Robert Joëlle. Démographie et acculturation. Une nouvelle phase dans l’histoire des ammassalimiut émigrés au Scoresbysund : l’introduction du contrôle des naissances. In: Journal de la Société des Américanistes. Tome 59, 1970. pp. 147-154; doi : https://doi.org/10.3406/jsa.1970.2954

[17] Robert Joëlle. Démographie et acculturation. Une nouvelle phase dans l’histoire des ammassalimiut émigrés au Scoresbysund : l’introduction du contrôle des naissances. In: Journal de la Société des Américanistes. Tome 59, 1970. pp. 147