Gibraltar votes 'yes' to easing abortion laws

Gibraltar voted by a large majority to ease its draconian abortion laws in a referendum delayed for over a year by the coronavirus pandemic, results showed early Friday. 

Some 62 percent of voters cast their ballots in favour of an amended law allowing abortion where a woman’s mental or physical health is at risk — such as in cases of rape or incest — or when foetuses have fatal physical defects.

Just over 36 percent voted against the move in a ballot that exposed sharply opposing views within this normally closely-knit British enclave at the southernmost tip of Spain that is home to some 32,000 people. 

Turnout was 52.75 percent.

At present, abortion is banned in Gibraltar on pain of life imprisonment, although such a penalty has not been applied in modern times. 

The only exception is where it would save the mother’s life

The amended law will mean a woman will be able to undergo an abortion up to 12 weeks into her pregnancy if her mental or physical health is deemed at risk, or beyond if such damage would be grave and permanent. 

Although the changes have already been approved by Gibraltar’s parliament, the referendum asked voters whether or not the amended law should be brought into force. 

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

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, who had campaigned for a “yes” vote, acknowledged that abortion was “an emotive subject” but hailed the outcome as a necessary step forward. 

“Tonight is not a night to be pleased, because I don’t think even those who wanted to see the ‘yes’ campaign succeed want to celebrate that women may have abortions,” he told Gibraltar TV. 

“What we all wanted to do was to ensure that this mechanism was there… so that women can make choices,” he said as emotional campaigners cheered and celebrated in the background. 

The amended legislation is expected to come into effect fairly quickly, although officials have not laid out a specific timeline.

– ‘Very extreme’ –

“This law is very extreme. It removes all protection from unborn children all the way up to the nine months,” Karenza Morillo, a “No” campaigner told AFP during Thursday’s vote.  

“On paper it looks restrictive but in practice it will not be.”

But Celina Victory, a 19-year-old campaigner for a “Yes” vote, said the opposite.

“It’s not going to open the gates to abortion on demand at all,” she said. 

“There is a broad range of grounds before 12 weeks, which is fine and we don’t have an issue with that. It is still stricter than most of the legislation in Europe.”

The referendum was initially slated for March 19, 2020 but was postponed as virus cases began spiralling at the start of the pandemic.

The proposed changes 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.

“It is therefore clear that if the equivalent law on abortion in Northern Ireland was in breach of the Convention, our identical, archaic law is too,” wrote Picardo in Wednesday’s Gibraltar Chronicle.

“It is our duty to vote to stop this ongoing breach.”

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