Gibraltar’s Abortion Referendum

Five decades after abortion became legal in the UK, Gibraltar is finally poised to hold a referendum on extending reproductive rights – with a grassroots campaign hoping to overturn restrictions in one of only three European territories to ban abortion outright.

More than five decades after abortion first became legal in the United Kingdom, the British territory of Gibraltar will soon hold a referendum on reproductive rights. (When, exactly, will depend on the coronavirus.)

The former colony is virtually fully autonomous in its ability to legislate within the jurisdiction. The only exceptions to the rule are matters that fall under foreign policy and defence, which are both dictated by the Foreign Office. As such, Gibraltar’s domestic social and economic policy is usually mandated by its domestically-elected parliament. 

The majority of Gibraltar’s thirty thousand population identifies as Catholic, making it demographically comparable to the Republic of Ireland which also recently legalised abortion for the first time back in 2018. Terminating a pregnancy on the Rock is currently punishable by life imprisonment.

Political parties were forced to take positions on the issue after the Irish referendum renewed calls for reform, as Gibraltar would be joined only by Malta and Vatican City as the jurisdictions in Europe forbidding abortions outright. The nascent Together Gibraltar was the sole pro-choice party at the recent election in October. The Gibraltar Social Democrats (the GSD) were opposed to progressive reform, while the governing Gibraltar Socialist Labour/Liberal Alliance (the GSLP/Liberals) eventually landed on the position of holding a referendum.

The legislation on the ballot paper is a partial reform, decriminalising terminations but limiting it to twelve weeks into the pregnancy and with the conditions of possible injury to the woman or fatal abnormalities to the foetus. Nevertheless, it has provided a moment for a grassroots anti-establishment awakening against conservative and reactionary forces in this small piece of Britain in Mediterranean Europe. 

Gibraltar’s political scene has been described as a ‘barristocracy’ – in short, dominated by white male lawyers. It is not merely that there are two women out of the 17 MPs in the parliament, a rate of just 12 percent; indeed, Together Gibraltar made history by fielding a 50/50 gender-split slate of candidates in October. It is also that the political structures chronically under-represent the working-class. The political blindness to women and the working-class is inseparable and is particularly exposed when it comes to the issue at the upcoming referendum.

A YES Gibraltar (the pro-choice campaign for the referendum) spokeswoman, Isobel Ellul, is full of testimonies that have been passed onto her, mostly by young working-class women who want to remain anonymous – which itself speaks volumes. “Those who can’t afford it [an abortion] are affected worst,” she says. Ellul provided an example, however, of a woman she had spoken to earlier in the day who “was pregnant at 19 and carried out her pregnancy. She was on track to represent Great Britain in a team sport but was unable to do so… she had to carry on with her pregnancy because she could not afford an abortion… these are the kind of stories we are getting.”

Pro-choice women have shared their experiences on a Facebook group called ‘In Her Shoes,’ which has created a community of solidarity. These stories are life-altering, often revolving around a young woman beginning to make her independent journey in life but ending up in a situation of precarity and shame. Still, revealing yourself as pro-choice or having considered an abortion comes with significant difficulties.

The gagging of working-class women in Gibraltar is both implicit and explicit. Implicit because word gets around in small towns and social pressures in the community are intense. If you are from Gibraltar and have had an abortion, you would be tempted to keep tight-lipped about it to avoid the judgement and stigma. It is hard to live an ostracised existence in a town that’s 6.8 square kilometres. Religious leaders have even compared abortions to the Holocaust. And that’s if you’ve had an abortion – even being outwardly pro-choice might make you unwelcome in your place of worship.

Getting abortions under the current prohibition comes at severe cost to working-class women. Abortions are legal in Spain and mainland UK, the two places where Gibraltarians travel to terminate their pregnancies. If you’re a working-class young woman who chooses against carrying out a pregnancy to full term, you would have to spend money you might not have to travel back and forth for the procedure, as well as the cost of the procedure itself – all of this is assuming that you can afford to take time off work or, in some cases, miss classes at school. 

These practical concerns are uniquely class-based, as rich families have the resources to fund an abortion abroad, as well as any post-surgical therapy or mental health assistance. Working-class women are condemned whichever option they take. Carrying the pregnancy to term when your resources are limited likely condemns you to precarity and the associated mental health consequences that come with taking a path you did not choose. Terminating the pregnancy under legal conditions condemns you to precarity and the associated mental health consequences due to stigma and shame when you return home. 

Of course, legalising abortion is not enough. Gibraltar is yet to guarantee equal pay for equal work and parity on parental leave. Christina Linares, a pro-choice activist and undergraduate student, was vocal about the relation to broader issues that affect women and working-class families:

Putting forward paternity leave will improve family systems and the working lives of women because it changes the stereotype that women are the primary caregivers to the children. It will also help close the gender pay gap because having equal amount of leave between father and mother will ensure that equal amount of work is missed to look after children and therefore equal opportunity for both men and women to move forward and exceed in their jobs.

In a conservative society, the systemic inequalities that burden women and the working-class are pervasive across socio-economic policy. Gibraltar is yet another case study that ought to bind feminism and the Left to each other. Many decades ago, Engels stressed the need to “transform the relations between the sexes into a purely private matter which concerns only the persons involved and into which society has no occasion to intervene.” It is this perspective – which unites the material and social concerns, and insists on women’s bodily autonomy – which underpins the struggle for abortion rights today.