Gibraltar set to vote to ease abortion laws although divisions emerge

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.

Gibraltar set to vote to ease abortion laws although divisions emerge

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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What you need to know about Spain’s plan to change its abortion laws

In Spain women can get an abortion for free in all public hospitals up until 14 weeks, no questions asked. But the reality is that many doctors refuse to perform them. The Spanish government is revising its laws to make sure it is enforced across the country.

What you need to know about Spain’s plan to change its abortion laws
Anti-abortion supporters take part in a march in Madrid in 2014. In Spain women have the right to abortions up to the 14th week of their pregnancy, but many doctors across the country refuse to perform the procedure. Photo by DANI POZO / AFP

Under the current legislation introduced by the previous Socialist government in 2010, women in Spain have the right to abortions up to the 14th week of their pregnancy, which is standard in much of Europe.

They also have the legal right to abort up to the 22nd week of pregnancy in cases where the mother’s health is at risk or the foetus has serious deformities.

‘Conscientious objectors’

However, in practice this law translates into a very different reality.  

Many doctors across Spain refuse to practice abortions, calling themselves “conscientious objectors”.

So many doctors deny the procedure across the country, that in five out of the 17 autonomous regions in Spain, no public hospitals offer abortions, according to data from the Health Ministry

This causes stark regional inequalities, forcing thousands of women to either travel to another part of the country, or pay for one in a private clinic, despite the 2010 law stating that “all women should benefit from equal access to abortion regardless of where they reside”.

According to the data, the provinces of Teruel, Ávila, Palencia, Segovia, Zamora, Cuenca, Toledo and Cáceres have not performed a single abortion in the past 30 years.

And, another even more revealing statistic: in 2019, 85 per cent of abortions took place in private clinics.

The map below shows the provinces that never perform abortions in red, the ones where it has varied over the years in orange, and the ones where they have always been available in green.

READ ALSO: Why does Spain top Europe’s Covid vaccination league table?

Law reform

The minister of equality, Irene Montero, has proposed a reform of the current law that would limit doctors being able to refuse the procedure.

“Conscientious objection cannot be an obstacle for women to exercise their right to terminate a pregnancy,” Montero said in a tweet. “We must reform the law to regulate it and make sure abortion is guaranteed in the public health system.”

Montero said the draft law would be ready in December after a consultation process.

However, others have said doctors should not be forced to perform abortions.

The president of Madrid’s regional government, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, said she would not force “any doctor in Madrid’s public health system to practice an abortion against their will” because doctors study medicine “to save lives and not to do the opposite”.


The situation shows abortion remains a dividing issue in Spain, where a large part of the conservative population is still opposed to a law that was introduced over a decade ago.

The former conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had promised to tighten Spain’s abortion law before he came into power in 2011.

However he was forced to drop the plans in 2014 due to disagreement within his Popular Party (PP). This angered many Catholic and other pro-life groups.

The reform would have ended women’s rights to freely terminate their pregnancies up until the 14th weeks. 

In 2015 Rajoy’s government passed another reform requiring girls aged 16 and 17 to get their parents’ consent if they wished to terminate a pregnancy. But the measure failed to pacify pro-life campaigners.

Montero also announced plans to repeal the 2015 reform as part of the draft law.