Why You Cannot Give Birth on Svalbard

Svalbard is an incredible island far north in the arctic. It’s technically Norwegian territory, but it is exempt from many Norwegian laws and regulations. Not only will you get kicked off the island if you lose your job, but you also cannot give birth there. So, what’s up with the rule forbidding women to give with on Svalbard?

It’s not illegal to give birth on Svalbard, but there are few midwifes or doctors there to help you out. So for this reason all pregnant women are sent to mainland Norway two weeks before expected birthing to give birth in a mainland Norwegian hospital.

Longyearbyen on Svalbard
Longyearbyen on Svalbard. Photo published with permission.

Svalbard is a place where you are legally required to take care of your own health, and it lacks specialized medical care. There is a small hospital there, but medical procedures that can wait are mostly done in mainland Norway.

The hospital on Svalbard is pretty much emergency care only. They are able to handle some urge surgeries, but the air ambulance will come and pick up people who need non-urgent surgeries. The travel time from Svalbard to Tromsø is only 1.5 hours, so it’s not that long compared to the drive people in rural Norway have to undertake to get to a hospital.

There are occasionally births on Svalbard

Most births are planned well in advance, but there will always be complications with women who give birth very early in the pregnancy. Luckily there are both doctors and midwives on Svalbard to handle unforeseen births, so it’s not like you have to give birth in your home or hotel room.

If you begin to give birth on Svalbard, the doctors will usually call in an air ambulance to transport you to Tromsø. However, if it’s too far into the birthing, they will deliver the baby at the hospital. The single midwife working at Svalbard will try to be there for the birth, but single it’s only a single employee, you can’t really be certain that she will make it.

The last baby to be born on Svalbard was in 2006, and this was the first baby in 15 years. So only a single baby has been born on Svalbard in over 30 years.

Pregnant woman
Most women are sent off Svalabrd before they give birth. Photo published with permission.

The Svalbard hospital is for emergencies

The hospital on Svalbard is not as staffed as a regular hospital, so they do not want any births or other procedures that can potentially wait. So most pregnant women get sent off the island about two weeks before they are expected to give birth.

This might sound weird, but all Norwegians who live on Svalbard are also registered in another municipality on mainland Norway, so they have a general practitioner to use at another place in Norway.

You have the right to choose which hospital to give birth at in Norway, so the women are free to chose whichever hospital they prefer in all of mainland Norway.

Homes on Svalbard
Homes on Svalbard. Photo by Peter Vermeij, published with permission.

You are also not supposed to die on Svalbard

The other end of the spectrum is that you’re also not really supposed to die on Svalbard. People who are so sick that the doctors think they might die will also be transported to Tromsø to get better treatment there. The same goes for older people; once they are in need of regular medical care they will be forced to leave the island.

There are obviously some deaths on Svalbard, and there are some people who have died from polar bear attacks and natural causes such as heart attacks there.

Polar bear
A polar bear. Photo published with permission.

Some rumors claim that it’s illegal to die on Svalbard, but that is just complete nonsense. It’s not against the law. The reason why this rumor started is simply because the hospital always send terminally ill people to the mainland.

It’s also not possible to be buried on Svalbard due to the permafrost in the ground.

All of this has lead to the saying that “no one will either be born or die on Svalbard“. The thing about Svalbard is that it’s not really your home, but rather a temporary place to live for a certain period in your life. The average length of living on Svalbard is only 4 years, because it’s pretty difficult to live there over time unless you’re a special type of personality.

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