Gibraltar, a week on from the abortion law referendum

Christina Cortes - Friday 2nd July 2021

On Thursday 24th June – almost five years to the day since the last time Gibraltar took part in a referendum – the Rock’s registered voters weighed in on whether to ease what’s been described as one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, ultimately voting in favour of change.

Unlike the Brexit vote, this was the first referendum in Gibraltar’s history on a purely domestic policy issue. Although the possibility of external intervention by the UK government or Supreme Court had been raised should the Rock not update its law, in the end this was a wholly Gibraltarian decision.

After the past few years of fervent debate, it’s hard to remember that, before 2018, abortion was an unmentionable subject in Gibraltar. Undoubtedly, religion played a fundamental role in this; also, the undeniable fact that Gibraltar’s geography meant abortions were available just across the border, meaning the debate could be endlessly deferred in a way that it could not in countries where women had to travel huge distances, even board planes to access them. Notably, it did not form part of any political party’s manifesto until this very last general election. This included the manifestos of the GSLP-Liberal alliance that would ultimately introduce a new law: in the early 2010s, the future Yes supporter Fabian Picardo answered a question on a GBC programme as to whether he would consider changing the abortion law with a flat no.

It was, ironically, the formerly socially-conservative Gibraltar Women’s Association that first broke that taboo, even though internal divisions over the issue saw the GWA withdraw fully from the debate in the following years. Since then, political parties, organisations, individuals have spoken up and spoken out: their fervour sometimes matching that reserved for issues relating to Spain, but without, of course, the same unity of opinion on fundamentals.

The majority decision in the abortion law referendum was a 62 percent vote in favour of yes, as compared to 37 percent for no. This was no 52-48 percent Brexit result – an outcome many thought possible - but a decisive win, to the relief of those who worried a minimal margin would make it harder for Gibraltar to move forward as one. However, neither was it the staggering 99 percent smash of the 2002 joint sovereignty referendum.

The word that’s been used over and over again is “divisive”. With such an emotive issue, and one with which Gibraltar has never before had an open reckoning, it could hardly have been expected to be otherwise. There were many who felt strongly on either side and who expressed those opinions equally strongly both online and out loud, with the resulting faultlines running through political parties, through workplaces, through groups of friends, through families. It has been speculated whether the presence of those same faultlines in the GSLP-Liberal government could have helped lead Gibraltar to a referendum that could otherwise have been avoided; that some ministers may have only been prepared to vote for a new abortion law with the caveat that it would be put to a public vote.

By the time the public did get to vote, a subject that was once barely-acknowledged seemed like it had become ever-present: some, even on the pro-life side, including the Bishop, Carmel Zammit, concurred with pro-choice supporters, such as Marlene Hassan Nahon, a prominent pro-choice voice throughout the debate, in the opinion that the Government should have simply legislated. The COVID crisis saw the referendum stopped just days before its initial date in March 2020, with the delay lasting over a year. During that time, abortion was hardly discussed, but when campaigning eventually resumed, for many – exhausted after so many months of fear and anxiety – it felt like the Rock was relitigating an old, painful, unresolved argument.

Was that one of the reasons for the low turnout of just under 53 percent of registered voters – far lower than general elections, where turnout is routinely upwards of 70 percent? It may well have been. For GBC, the COVID pandemic and social distancing guidance meant we were unable to run an updated opinion poll; to try to gauge whether public opinion had shifted, or public interest waned, since March 2020. That was when our opinion poll ahead of the initial referendum date found 70 percent of respondents saying they would vote Yes, with just under 19 percent saying they would vote No, and just over 11 percent saying they didn’t know or wouldn’t vote. The final result saw the No vote gain ground – perhaps partly due to a passionate and strategic campaign in the last weeks, as compared to a lighter-touch and social-media-focused Yes campaign. Ultimately, though, the Yes win bore out the baseline predicted by our poll – perhaps indicating that the Rock has demographically and definitively shifted from the days when abortion remained firmly out of sight and out of mind in the public discourse.

A week on from the referendum, and the dust has settled, somewhat: normal business continues, with speculation over Brexit, disputes over Community Care, the prospect of a hot and busy summer ahead. Of course, the impending enactment of the law is only the beginning: its implementation remains to be seen. Pro-life supporters, as indicated by the No campaign’s Karenza Morillo, are keen to ensure the promises of no private clinics and protection for conscientious objectors remain in place; while pro-choice supporters are no doubt waiting to see how the GHA trains and equips its staff to carry out this new responsibility to service users. And, in a heartening move for many, both sides have publicly expressed their wish to work together on areas of common ground. Pro-life, pro-choice, or somewhere in between: anyone who cares about women’s healthcare will be watching as this law rolls out, to see what support will be available to ensure women’s physical and mental health is safeguarded in practice, and not just in law.