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Gibraltar Government announces referendum on abortion legislation

Photo John Bugeja

A referendum on whether abortion should be legalised in Gibraltar under certain circumstances will be held next year, the Gibraltar Government has announced.

The referendum, which will give Gibraltarians the final say on whether to partially lift the current prohibition on abortion, is planned for March 19, 2020.

On Friday, Parliament will debate a Bill amending the Crimes Act 2011 regarding the legality of abortion under certain circumstances.

But if it is approved by Parliament, the legislation will only be implemented if it has the backing of the community in the referendum.

The GSLP/Liberals have committed themselves to honour the results of the referendum should the alliance be returned to government at the next general election.

Over the past year the sensitive subject of abortion has been the focus of intense exchanges between local groups and organisations on either side of the debate, with demonstrations, petitions and academics weighing into the public discussion.

The prospect of a change in Gibraltar’s abortion law followed a decision of the UK Supreme Court on abortion law in Northern Ireland.

In that case, a majority of the court found that the current law in Northern Ireland is disproportionate and incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, in that it prohibits abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, pregnancy as a result of rape and pregnancy as a result of incest.

The Northern Ireland legal case placed Gibraltar’s law under the spotlight and raised the question of whether the Crimes Act, which makes abortion a crime here, was in line with the Constitution.

Additional pressure stemmed from developments in Westminster just this week, where the House of Commons effectively imposed direct rule on Northern Ireland.

Last night the Gibraltar Government said it had been advised that Gibraltar law was likely no longer compatible with the Constitution and that it should take urgent legislative action.

That is why Parliament will debate the Bill today.

However, the government also acknowledged the depth and strength of feeling on this complex and sensitive subject, hence the decision to put the question to the community in a referendum should the Bill be approved in Parliament.

“The Government of Gibraltar maintains the view, as previously stated, that our current legislation breaches our Constitution and that we have an obligation not to tolerate a breach of the Constitution and of the European Convention of Human Rights,” No.6 Convent Place said in a statement.

But it added: “The government is of the view that it can only proceed by posing the question in a referendum as to whether to commerce these amendments to the Crimes Act.”

Over recent months, an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Abortion reviewed submissions from a cross-section of the community in a bid to understand local views on the subject.

The government said that despite the legal pressure to reform Gibraltar’s law on abortion, the Inter-Ministerial Committee had been given “pause for thought” by the fact that national authorities enjoy “a very limited discretion” when meeting their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, which is enshrined in Gibraltar’s Constitution.

“This limited discretion is referred to as a ‘margin of appreciation’ and it has been allowed for the protection of morals on the ground that moral concepts vary between countries,” No.6 said.

The government believes the ‘margin of appreciation’ is not enough for Gibraltar to prevent abortions in certain circumstances such as rape, incest and foetal abnormality.

Indeed, the inter-ministerial committee said it is not certain of the legal position in light of the margin of appreciation, and as such has decided to put the final decision to the public.

“I would like to thank those who have contributed in any way to our consideration of this, the most difficult of issues and, in particular, I wish to thank the members of the Inter-Ministerial Committee, for all their work,” Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said.

“Over the past few months our community has discussed this matter in a responsible and sensitive fashion and everyone has been respectful of the deeply-held views of others.”

“I sincerely hope that, throughout the months ahead, we are all able to maintain this high standard of debate and this willingness to listen to other people’s ideas.”