Gibraltar Abortion Referendum: A Threat to Human Rights

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Unknown to the United Kingdom’s mass media supervision, the British overseas territory of Gibraltar with its small population of 30,000 conceals one of the European Union’s harshest abortion laws and renunciation of human rights. The British territory has a seductive appeal about it through its bustling hive of culture, flourishing economy and radiant weather; however, its prosperity successfully masks the backward and regressive politics of Britain’s own mini-dystopia.

 Under section 16 of the 2011 Crime Act, abortion in Gibraltar is illegal. The act states abortion, as well as the act of assisting abortion, is punishable by life imprisonment. As a result, thousands of Gibraltarian women seeking abortions are forced to cross into Spain to undergo dangerous backstreet or ‘coat-hanger’ abortions or, alternatively, pay obscenely high sums of money in order to obtain the procedure in secret. 

The oppressive nature of Gibraltar’s abortion law garners resentment from Gibraltar’s small community and enforces silence and fear among women: fear for one’s own safety and the risk of life imprisonment. Generations of women have been dictated by an overwhelming sense of shame as a result of the illegality and criticism faced by those who seek an abortion. Often, those who do speak up to discuss their own experiences are advised to hide their faces as well as alter their voices in order to maintain anonymity and avoid the legal consequences of having sought an abortion. The Abortion Act, therefore, is a law imposed at the expense of female mental health, as the circumstance of seeking an abortion in a foreign country under silence and fear of life imprisonment is mentally taxing, distressing and traumatising. Women are denied a platform to deal with their trauma and are unable to express themselves in fear of being criticised or caught. 

The European Union declares that, ‘states should ensure that health systems and services are able to meet the specific sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents, including family planning and safe abortion services’. Instead, Gibraltar not only has one of Europe’s strictest abortion bans but does not even have an official sexual health clinic in the Gibraltar Health Authority. In this respect, notions of sex and sexuality remain completely taboo as Gibraltarians are not provided with full access to education and support in regards to sexual health.

According to a poll conducted by the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) in March 2018, 77% of respondents agreed that abortion should be legal in Gibraltar. Despite this large support for decriminalisation, the abortion debate has been a point of contention in Gibraltar. This is evident through the increasing polarisation between the pro-life and pro-choice movements within the microcosm of the British territory.

The Gibraltar Pro-life Movement is primarily responsible for the blocking legalisation of abortion. Through its campaigning, the movement has been criticised for broadcasting outdated views on the role of women. This is reflected in its shamefully sexist and disrespectful propaganda, using controversial slogans such as, ‘a woman bears a child, nothing else’. It is through this mode of regressive thinking that women’s rights are repressed by outdated values and non-factual opinions.

The legalisation of abortion in Ireland demonstrated that decriminalisation was imperative and not simply a democratic mandate; this providing an incentive for the March 2020 Abortion Bill Referendum in Gibraltar. However promising this move forward may be, it is irresponsible and unethical to discuss and decide on a matter of human rights through a referendum. By leaving the fate of decriminalisation to the general public, the Gibraltar government – formed almost entirely of men – highlight their incompetence and failure to meet 21st century democratic values that the United Kingdom represents. The well-being and safety of women in the British territory should be a major cause for concern in the United Kingdom.

The referendum, simply put, is an evasion of responsibility. The government’s refusal to take action is an attempt to maintain support from all areas of society at the expense of women, their freedom and their autonomy. Bodily autonomy, including safe access to abortion, is a human right. Gibraltarian women live in a dystopian Britain: never truly free to make their own choices with full ownership of their bodies.

Image Credit: European Interest