The world is in the midst of a pandemic. Covid-19 has caused holidays to be cancelled and the closure of schools and restaurants whilst millions of people struggle to adapt to living in isolation. One place that has seen much change is Gibraltar; not only has Britain’s overseas territory been forced to close all restaurants and put a stop to all mass gatherings, but it has also had to cancel a referendum which was due to take place on 19th March, regarding the Rock’s strict abortion laws.
Spanning only three square miles and situated at the tip of Spain, the Rock often gets overlooked in the British media. Gibraltar, which is predominately Roman Catholic but has large Jewish and Muslim communities, is in the midst of trying to change the law regarding abortion, similar to Northern Ireland, but the proposals do not go far enough.
According to Section 16 of the 2011 Crimes Act anyone who destroys the life of a child capable of being born alive, before it has had a chance to live independently from its mother, is liable to life imprisonment. The only situation in which it is currently legal is if aborting the child is the only way of preserving the life of the mother. So, despite being a part of Britain, Gibraltar has some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe which means many who can afford to do so must travel across the border into Spain or fly to the United Kingdom in order to receive something which is a basic medical procedure in many other Western countries.
The fact that Gibraltarian women are faced with either travelling away from home or being forced to go through with the pregnancy puts even more strain on them during what is already an emotional time. The decision to have an abortion is not an easy one for a woman to make, and this is made even harder when they not only risk being judged by those who disagree but also by a law that will not allow it.
As a Catholic country, abortion is an extremely taboo topic and is not something that is discussed in schools. However, now that the discussion is becoming more prevalent, many Gibraltarians, both female and male, are starting to campaignand speak out about their opinions and support regarding a change in the law. A campaign was launched called “Gibraltar for Yes” which aims to encourage Gibraltarians to vote yes and support changes to the law.
The campaign, which has been publicly supported by Gibraltar’s Chief Minister, hopes to challenge the misinformation that has spread and share stories of local women and couples. However, the referendum, which will allow all Gibraltarians from the age of 16 to vote, puts forward a proposed law on abortion that still has many restrictions.
For example, it would only be legal due to foetal abnormality if the woman had mental health problems or if the woman had been raped. Furthermore, the woman or couple would have to gain the approval of two doctors before being allowed to have the termination. With regards to when the abortion would be allowed to take place, it would only be legal up to the 12th week of pregnancy. This is in contrast to the UK where most abortions are carried out before the 24th week of pregnancy.
Activists in Gibraltar and Malta have teamed up with an aim to help women in need of an abortion. Malta is the only country in Europe to prohibit abortion entirely. A small UK-based charity Abortion Support Network (ASN) has begun offering residents in both countries their services.
ASN is an abortion fund and, according to their website, the fund is “here to catch those who are unable to access an abortion in their country, and who do not have the financial resources to access one abroad”. ASN will offer practical and financial support to those travelling for an abortion and they have recently announced that they will also offer funding for Maltese and Gibraltarian citizens who wish to have a telephone consultation or counselling session.
This session will be provided by a leading UK abortion provider BPAS. ASN is a non-judgemental organisation and one that has the ability to change the lives of those in Gibraltar while abortion is still illegal. They highlight on their website how it is a safe space free from judgement where they comment that they “do not ask our clients how they got pregnant or why they want abortions, as the rich do not need to justify themselves. Our only criteria are financial need and our availability of funds.” The work of this charity and the referendum are positive moves for women who wish to seek an abortion. However, they should not be forced to travel elsewhere in what is already a difficult time for them.
Despite these being positive changes for women, it is important to highlight that there is still a long way to go. Abortion will always be a controversial subject, and it will never be possible for everyone to agree. However, it is essential that we keep this conversation about abortion alive. Although the referendum offers changes that will be a relief to many women, it will ultimately still leave a lot of women scared and alone if they do not fit the criteria to allow them to get an abortion.
There are so many reasons why a woman might choose to have an abortion and it is important that people understand that a law should not be allowed to dictate which ones are deemed acceptable and which are not. Whichever way the vote goes, it is important for the conversation on abortion in Gibraltar to continue, as must the fight to give women autonomy over their bodies.