Earlier this year, pro-choice activists in Gibraltar were hopeful that their territory’s abortion laws – the harshest in Europe – could soon be overturned.
Terminations are banned in the tiny British territory, even in the cases of rape, incest, or foetal abnormality where the foetus will not survive. Abortions are punishable by life imprisonment, except when the woman’s life is in danger.
A historic referendum, originally scheduled for March, would have given Gibraltar’s citizens the unprecedented chance to vote to decriminalise abortion.
But just a week before the vote was due to take place, the government announced that it would be postponed because of coronavirus.
Six months on – and despite seeing only 350 Covid-19 cases and no deaths – Gibraltarians are still waiting.
Bars and shops are open, and now that life has returned to relative normality, pro-choice activists argue that rescheduling the referendum must be a priority.
“The women of Gibraltar are being let down by not only having their reproductive rights being put to public vote, but now having that vote delayed without a prospective date,” said activist Tamsin Suarez.
“The lockdown showed just how outdated our legislation really is; the UK has been legally allowed to have abortions at home, whereas Gibraltarians have found themselves alone and desperate with no means of reproductive healthcare.”
Gibraltarian women faced with unwanted pregnancies currently have limited options: those who can afford it may go to neighbouring Spain or fly to the UK for an abortion; others will be forced to attempt the procedure themselves.
Rosalina Oliva, who says she was living in Gibraltar with an abusive partner when she fell pregnant for the third time, crossed the border to access an abortion clinic in Spain in 2008.
“I sobbed the whole time,” she says. “I had no one to turn to. No one knew what I had just done. I was alone; alone with the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
Because abortion is illegal in Gibraltar, no official services exist to provide women with the emotional support or practical aftercare they may need following the procedure. For Laura, the lack of medical support, combined with the silencing effect of stigma, made her experience all the more difficult.
“I had a lot of pain and bleeding afterwards,” said Laura, who asked not to use her surname. “Because there is no after-support from the clinic and none in Gibraltar, I didn’t know if this was normal or not – I just had to guess.”
The emotional impact and the sense of isolation often felt after an abortion are especially heightened in Gibraltar. The territory’s tiny population of around 34,000 means word travels fast and any shame felt is amplified. The majority of Gibraltarians identify as Roman Catholic – no small factor in the territory’s reluctance to change its stance on reproductive rights.
Earlier this year, religious leaders in Gibraltar encouraged voters to oppose the law change, describing abortion as a “modern-day holocaust”.
The statement – issued by a group of men – highlighted the religious conservatism that has for so long influenced politics on the tiny peninsula. Same-sex marriage was only legalised in 2016, and the morning-after pill only became available the year after – with both decisions facing resistance from the Catholic community.
According to Marlene Hasson Nahon, leader of political party Together Gibraltar, personal views have no place in legislation.
“The argument for me is very simple: you don’t have to be pro-abortion, you just have to be pro the healthcare legislation that lets women make their own choices,” she says. “Abortion will carry on happening, it’s not something we’re going to get rid of, so let’s just make sure that women are treated safely.”
Activists say that until its people are given a referendum, Gibraltar will remain a place that does not allow women to make safe, supported choices about their own bodies and lives.
“I made the most difficult decision I have ever made,” Rosalina says of her abortion. “And it was the right one. I left my abusive husband seven months later.
“Three years after, and in another relationship, I had my daughter. And every time I look at her, I am reassured that I made the right decision.”