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Gibraltar divided ahead of abortion referendum

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Madrid (AFP)

Rare divisions have emerged in Gibraltar over an upcoming referendum on easing the tiny territory's draconian abortion laws as a poll published on Thursday suggested 70 percent would vote in favour.

Ahead of the March 19 referendum, campaigners on both sides have waged a heated campaign that has exposed sharply-opposing views within this normally closely-knit British enclave at the southernmost tip of Spain, which is home to some 32,000 people.

Except in cases where it would save the mother's life, abortion is currently banned in Gibraltar on pain of life imprisonment, although such a penalty has not been applied in modern times.

Now the government has proposed changing the law to allow abortion where a woman's mental or physical health are at risk -- such as in cases of rape or incest -- or when foetuses have fatal physical defects.

Earlier this week, seven Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders came under fire over a photo of them standing over Gibraltar's Holocaust memorial as they unveiled their 'Vote no' manifesto which said that promoting abortion is "a human right is a scandal and a disgrace".

The picture drew a sharp rebuke from the government which said using the Nazi genocide to promote their views on abortion was "distasteful, disrespectful and unacceptable".

If passed, the amended law would allow a woman to undergo an abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy if her mental or physical health is deemed at risk, or beyond if such damage would be grave and permanent. There would be no time limit on cases involving fatal foetal anomaly.

Until now, women wanting to have an abortion have had to travel to Spain or to Britain to undergo the procedure.

Two weeks ahead of the referendum, 70 percent of voters said they would vote in favour of the changes, while just under 19 percent said they would vote against, a poll commissioned by the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) found Thursday.

The proposed changes in the law came after Britain's Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that Northern Ireland's abortion laws, which at the time were almost identical to Gibraltar's, were incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

But Gibraltar's Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said concerns about possible border changes linked to Brexit had also played a role in the thinking.

"Abortion was not a live political issue in Gibraltar because, although our law prevents abortion, this law had fallen into disuse in the sense that people who wanted to have abortions simply had them in Spain," he told AFP in an interview in January.

"This was probably one of the most unintended consequences of Brexit: that people suddenly said, well hang on a minute, if people have been going for abortions in Spain what happens if.. the frontier is closed?"

Picardo predicted the law changes would be approved "by a very large majority", saying the move was long overdue.

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