Gibraltar residents voted by a large majority on Thursday to relax one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe after an emotional campaign to lift a near-ban on the procedure and bring tiny British territory closer to British law.
In a referendum, about 62 percent of voters approved a change in the law to allow abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy if a woman’s mental or physical health is judged to be at risk by a doctor, or later if a woman has severe fetal abnormalities.
Previously, Gibraltar law had only allowed abortions to save a mother’s life. The law provided for a potential criminal sentence of life imprisonment, although no such sentence has been imposed in recent history.
In contrast, UK law allows abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Parliament set the stage for the vote on Thursday in 2019 when it adopted language to relax abortion restrictions, which it passed to voters for approval. A referendum was originally planned for March 2020 but was postponed to Thursday due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Gibraltar, a territory of 34,000 at the tip of southern Spain, has retained some significant legal differences from the UK. But the Gibraltar Parliament kicked off the changes after the UK Supreme Court warned in 2018 that Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Keith Azopardi, an opposition politician who was against a relaxation of abortion restrictions, described the referendum campaign as “emotional and divisive”. The majority of Gibraltar’s residents are Catholics, and the Bishop of Gibraltar had spoken out against any relaxation of the abortion law.
The turnout among the 23,000 eligible voters in Gibraltar was 53 percent.
Fabian Picardo, the leader of the Gibraltar government, had supported the abortion changes. After casting his own vote Thursday, he retweeted a message from the London-based Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists saying that “restrictive abortion laws endanger women’s lives by forcing them to either leave the country or to access unsafe and illegal supplies ”. . “
Early on Friday morning, Mr. Picardo tweeted a “We did it!” Message and wrote that the government “will work on introducing the new services we need to provide counseling and safe and legal abortions”.
The changes will take effect in 28 days. Previously, the law in Gibraltar had resulted in women seeking an abortion usually traveling elsewhere, often to the UK and sometimes across the land border to neighboring Spain, where abortions were legalized under certain circumstances more than 30 years ago.
Great Britain secured control of Gibraltar in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, although Spain has long denied British sovereignty. In December negotiators struck a last-minute deal to prevent travelers and goods from being stranded on Gibraltar’s land border with Spain after the UK completed its exit from the European Union.
While British voters supported leaving the EU in a referendum in 2016, an overwhelming majority of voters in Gibraltar voted against the decision known as Brexit.