In Stockholm, Sweden, women are invited to a cost-free population-based cervical cancer screening programme (PCCSP) at regular intervals. Despite this, many women choose not to attend screening at all or to take opportunistic tests instead. This study explores how women who actively declined participation in the PCCSP reasoned about their choice. Qualitative telephone interviews and fax messages from women who actively declined participation in the PCCSP were analysed inductively. The manner in which women defined and conceptualized distinctions between, and the roles and responsibilities of, both private and public spheres were found to be central in explanations of decision making. Factors related to women's decisions not to participate in screening at all include a lack of confidence in the benefits of screening, previous negative health care and preventive experiences, a belief in one's own ability to discern health changes or a belief that one was not at risk for cervical cancer, as well as a number of unconventional standpoints on social and political issues. Women who chose not to participate in the organized PCCSP, but who did use private opportunistic screening, generally motivated this with direct or indirect criticism of the screening programme itself. Not only was the examination itself sensitive but also all facets of the PCCSP, from invitation letter on, were found to influence women's decisions. Using Jepson et al.'s ethical framework to peruse the evidence-base underlying women's ‘informed decision-making’ about CCS is suggested to be more constructive than discussing potential participants' knowledge versus lack of knowledge. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.