Behind the Lens: Iceland’s Down syndrome dilemma

“CBSN: On Assignment” airs Monday, August 14, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS, and on our streaming network, CBSN.


It’s 10:00 p.m. in downtown Reykjavik, and the sun is just starting to set. The light grey hue that has stamped the sky all day now has soft streaks of orange. The summer solstice in Iceland is in full swing. An 18-hour day recedes, and in less than 6 hours the sun will begin to rise again. I am walking back to my hotel. I zip my fleece, stuff my hands into my pockets and my chin into my chest. I guess one would expect a country named Iceland to still be chilly in May. I step out of the street as a rare car crawls past. The sidewalk, like the street, is pristine. Clean, well-paved. It mirrors some of the best attributes of the country: orderly, efficient and equal

This landmass, straddling the continental plates of both Europe and North America, is interesting. Only slightly larger than the state of Maine, it has a largely homogenous population. Just 6 percent of Icelanders are foreign-born and it’s reported that more than 90 percent can trace their ancestors back to the original Viking settlers. More than half of of the country’s population lives in the capital, Reykjavik. Our interviewees laugh at the everybody-knows-everybody experience that my crew and I encounter regularly. And it feels true: Reykjavik, the capital city equivalent to a small town. It makes me wonder if these minor, societal anecdotes somehow contribute to the purpose of our journey: understanding why nearly all pregnant women in Iceland whose fetuses have been diagnosed with Down syndrome are ending their pregnancies.

Iceland is a volcanic island full of glaciers and waterfalls, including Seljalandsfoss, seen here, a two-hour journey from the capital city of Reykjavik. The entire nation has a population of about 330,000 people — a little more than Pittsburgh.

CBS News

It is a loaded query, similar to the question of why any person embarks on the decision to end a pregnancy, varied and discrepant for each individual woman and man, regardless of nationality. However, Iceland does stand apart. In Denmark, termination rates for fetuses with Down syndrome stand at 98 percent; the figure in France is 77 percent; and in the U.S., studies suggest about 67 percent. Iceland is the only country to have reached a consensus: from 2007 to 2015 every single pregnant woman in Iceland…

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