Hospital Didn’t Violate Human Rights with Lack of Vegan Food for Pregnant Woman, Rules Court

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A Danish court has thrown out a case brought by a woman who claimed her rights were violated after a hospital did not offer adequate vegan options during her pregnancy.

Despite one district court recognising veganism as a protected belief earlier this year, another has gone the opposite way, ruling against a woman who claimed she was discriminated against by a hospital that failed to provide her with enough plant-based food options while she was pregnant.

Mette Rasmussen was twice hospitalised in Hvidovre (just north of Copenhagen) in 2020 – once for acute pain, and the second time in connection with her pregnancy – and was offered food categorised as “side dishes” on the hospital’s menu, since they were the only vegan options available. This meant she was given items like rice, root vegetables and apple juice as her meals, prompting concerns about her nutrition.

Worried that she may not be able to breastfeed properly, Rasmussen left the hospital early during the second hospitalisation. In fact, the hospital suggested she bring a packed lunch when she returned for childbirth.

The Danish Vegetarian Association (DVF) filed a suit against the administrative unit responsible for hospitals in Copenhagen and its surroundings on Rasmussen’s behalf, arguing that her dietary choice was protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which contends with the right to freedom of thought, belief, and religion).

In February 2020, the Danish Ministry of Justice acknowledged in a reply to the parliament that vegetarians and vegans were protected by the convention, and, in some situations, probably have the right to be served vegetarian and/or vegan meals in public institutions. But, on Thursday, a court acquitted the Capital Region, ruling that the patient wasn’t prevented from being vegan as she could eat the side dishes, and “had the opportunity to bring food herself or to have it delivered via relatives or others” to the hospital, or even buy food at 7-Eleven.

“It is very surprising that the court believes that what I was offered is considered adequate as vegan food, both in terms of nutrition and taste. Dry white rice, baked carrots, celery and boiled potatoes,” said Rasmussen. “And then I’m just happy that I didn’t have to be hospitalised longer than I actually was, because then I would have become decidedly underweight from malnutrition and a lack of calories.”

The experience led her to choose a home birth for her second child.

Hospital admits vegan food it offered is not nutritious enough

vegan human rights
Courtesy: Danish Vegetarian Association

In 2015, the Danish national dietary recommendations included concrete proposals to satisfy hot vegan dishes, in which pulses play a key role. Hvidovre Hospital says it has adopted these guidelines in its policy, but, of the 20 lunch and dinner meals on its menu, none were vegan. And, while several vegetarian dishes on the menu follow these recommendations, employees told the court in Hillerød last month that these could not be made vegan.

The lawyer representing the defendants argued that it was too much to ask the hospital to offer vegan food or adapt vegetarian meals to be plant-based, suggesting that vegans don’t have the right to demand more than the items listed as side dishes. Two employees reiterated this, but when asked if they thought the vegan food on offer was sufficiently nutritious or met the dietary guidelines, they conceded it didn’t.

The court also heard that there was oatmeal and shortbread in the kitchenette for patients, but this would have required patients to be able to physically move. Meanwhile, soy milk and yoghurt were also present on the kitchenette’s range of available items, but hospital staff weren’t aware of this, and so never ordered them for the department.

“I honestly cannot understand that all hospital kitchens cannot prepare nutritious vegan dishes that can benefit all patients, now that they have an entire menu full of meat dishes. It goes against all recommendations to let sick people live on side dishes for all the others’ meals during their hospitalisations,” said Rasmussen.

“For me, it would be the obvious and easy choice to make a few delicious vegan dishes that everyone can eat. In this case, Hvidovre Hospital does not even follow its own meal policy or dietary guidelines set by the state. I think it’s crazy that they are allowed to do that.”

Hundreds of similar complaints against Danish hospitals

veganism protected belief
Courtesy: Danish Vegetarian Association

“The plaintiff has not been prevented from eating vegan food in accordance with her beliefs during her otherwise short-term admissions,” the court said after acquitting the Capital Region, basing the judgement on the fact that Rasmussen’s hospitalisations were only one and three days long. But would the outcome have been different if these were longer stays?

This is what the plaintiff is considering as the DVF and prosecutor assess whether the verdict should be appealed to the high court. “The court says that the hospital could offer Mette ‘vegan food’. But there were no full vegan meals to be had, only individual vegan food items. In addition, it states that hospitalised vegans have the option of paying themselves to have food delivered from outside or to buy in the hospital’s kiosk, but this is also clear discrimination, and moreover impossible for many if they do not have family nearby or are bedridden,” said DVF general secretary Rune-Christoffer Dragsdahl.

“Having to buy food from outside every day can add up to a large amount. Thus, it becomes a user fee for hospitalised vegans, which is not fair,” he added.

The DVF has received 450 complaints from people who have had problems with accessing vegan food in hospitals, with many having to ask family or friends to bring in food, get ready meals from 7-Eleven, or live on supplements during their hospitalisation. While several hospitals in Denmark offer vegan food, many others don’t, the association said.

“We are surprised that the country’s hospitals do not follow the excellent official recommendations for what vegan hospital food should consist of – and that some of the suggested dishes are not on the menu at all,” Dragsdahl said last month.

“It is paradoxical that by having 20 different meals on the menu, the hospital takes into account many different personal preferences based on taste and pickiness. But when it comes to a conviction protected by the Human Rights Court, no consideration is given. It simply does not make sense, and we hope that the district court comes to the conclusion that it is illegal discrimination,” he added.

In February, a district court in the city of Hjorring protected veganism as a belief under the European Convention, after a school denied a kindergarten student the right to plant-based meals, and refused to allow her to bring a packed lunch as well. The Danish government, meanwhile, became the first to adopt a national action plan to transition towards plant-based food last year.


  • Anay Mridul

    Anay is Green Queen's resident news reporter. Originally from India, he worked as a vegan food writer and editor in London, and is now travelling and reporting from across Asia. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, food tech, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford comma.

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