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

Was Iceland Really the First Nation to Legalize Abortion?

Jan 28, 2015

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 .

Iceland 1938
VIEW GALLERY | 14 PHOTOS
Caption from print: "The geysers of Iceland tell the story of the country's volcanic origin. The cameraman was especially lucky in being able to photograph the 'Great Geysir' in action. A huge jet of boiling water (reaching height of about 20 feet) spurts up from the earth. But then the resources of Nature are exhausted for quite a long time until another gigantic display like this overwhelm the spectators. On his visit to Iceland, the King of Denmark (who is also the King of Iceland) waited in vain for two days for an eruption of the geyser."Pix Inc.—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Iceland 1938
Iceland 1938
Water bubbling and boiling in a geyser, Iceland
Looking into the crater of a mud volcano, ICeland
A "mud volcano," practically inactive. The striking mud in its crater is continuously boiling, but is hardly ever expelled. All located in the Haukadalur geothermal area east of Reykjavik.
Iceland 1938
Iceland 1938
Iceland 1938
Iceland 1938
Icelandic woman boiling wool, 1938
Icelandic men rinsing wool, 1938
Iceland 1938
Iceland 1938
Iceland 1938
Caption from print: "The geysers of Iceland tell the story of the country's volcanic origin. The cameraman was especially lucky in being able to photograph the 'Great Geysir' in ac
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Pix Inc.—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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