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Was Iceland Really the First Nation to Legalize Abortion?

Planet Observer / Getty Images / Universal Images Group Satellite image of Iceland

The oft-cited law was passed 80 years ago, on Jan. 28, 1935

Ask the Internet which country was the first to legalize abortion and you’re likely to find some confusing answers, many of which point in one direction: Iceland.

It’s true that, 80 years ago, on Jan. 28 of 1935, Iceland’s “Law No. 38” declared that the mother’s health and “domestic conditions” may be taken into consideration when considering whether to permit doctors to perform an abortion. And, according to the 1977 book Abortion by Malcolm Potts, Peter Diggory and John Peel, that law stuck for decades.

However, there are a lot of caveats to that “first” label. For one thing, abortion spent centuries as neither illegal nor legal, before becoming formally legislated, which happened in the 19th century in many places. Iceland, then, was the first Western nation to create what we might now recognize as a common modern abortion legalization policy, with a set of conditions making the procedure not impossible but not entirely unregulated.

Some other nations that passed abortion laws before Iceland’s (like Mexico, for example) also included conditions, like rape, under which it would be permitted. And, as Robertson’s Book of Firsts clarifies, the Soviet Union had actually legalized abortion, on demand, more than a decade earlier. The difference was that (a) the Soviet law didn’t last, as that nation underwent a series of regime changes, and (b) the conditions for legality were different. Though abortion was later strictly limited in Russia, legalization was apparently no small thing when it was first introduced.

As TIME reported on Feb. 17, 1936:

A not entirely enthusiastic participant last week was Dictator Joseph Stalin at the celebration by massed Communist delegations from all over Russia of the tenth anniversary of the founding in Moscow of the Union of the Militant Godless. This unprecedented Jubilee of Godlessness could only be compared to that celebrated by Bolsheviks in honor of the tenth anniversary of the Legalization in Russia of Abortion.

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