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Opinion & Analysis

Gibraltar must give women the right to choose

By Tamsin Suarez

A year and a half after the Gibraltar Women’s Association expressed that the long awaited sexual health clinic should include access to safe abortion for the emancipation of women at home and in the workplace, the debate still goes on, on social media, within families, and on the streets.

Only a small minority of countries in the world prohibit abortion, in most it is allowed to save the pregnant woman’s life or where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. The majority of developed countries allow abortion on request within a stipulated time frame, usually viability of the foetus. In Gibraltar, although remaining prohibited by a Victorian law reinserted into the Crimes Act (2011), it has been accepted practice for women to be referred by the GHA for a ‘second opinion’ in cases of foetal anomaly resulting in a termination elsewhere and away from support from social and family groups. Some seek their terminations in Spain, where abortion can be procured on demand for a fee. However this option gives little access to informed choice, where the pros and cons and all options are discussed. These women have been quiet on their choices, stigmatised in a community that has traditionally frowned on any open talk on sexuality or reproductive choices. As access to information and education becomes easier, thought has turned to realise that a woman is not just a womb, she has other options and she has a right to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy without being ostracised. There have always been abortions, only they weren’t openly talked about.

Abortion is an emotive subject. Fundamentalists wish to halt the change, to keep abortion a criminal matter, shouting ‘murderer’ and wanting those who choose to terminate their pregnancies to be prosecuted, whilst ignoring the fact that Gibraltarian women have been legally terminating in Spain and UK since 1967. This group is also ignoring that the government fund an IVF programme for those who have problems conceiving naturally, where eggs are fertilized in vitro and discarded when not wanted. Is it their belief that an embryo is only a life when implanted in a woman?

Others have had a termination themselves and know they made the right choice and want a comprehensive pre- and post-abortion care to be provided in their homeland for future generations.

Others still would not want to terminate a pregnancy themselves, because they are in the position that they would be able to support an unwanted pregnancy and bring up a child despite possible hardships, but would not dream of imposing their opinion someone else. How many of you know someone who has had a termination, a mother, a sister or a friend? I suspect it is more common than you think. Would you support that person and help them through it, talk to them and offer choices, or would you want them thrown into the prosecution system? Is it just everyone else who is wrong?

Through all the shouting, the opinions, the facts and the lies, the elephant in the room is not being addressed: The social issues that lead some women to terminate in the first place.

I am an executive member of Together Gibraltar and it is just these issues that have pushed me out of my comfort zone and into politics. Gibraltar is hard on women. Despite girls achieving grades the same or better than their male peers, we have a gender pay gap of 26%, one of the worst in Europe. This gender pay gap becomes magnified when it comes to the gender pension pay gap, with many pensioners living in poverty.

Maternity leave is still discriminatory and only women are forced to take what little maternity leave is provided by their employer, which leads to workplace stigmatisation of women and discrimination on promotion and employment with men being seen as more employable. Discrimination is not tackled sufficiently in the workplace legally or socially.

Single mothers are stigmatised and not provided with a livable income when unable to work, forced to rely on family members so their children can eat and be clothed in an acceptable manner. Poverty is hidden. Those with little external support suffer the most. There is little training or inclusive employment opportunities, such as part time or flexible working that help parents back into the workplace, no affordable nursery facilities for those who are seeking to work but do not yet have an income and no support for teenagers who get pregnant whilst studying. Working from home is fraught with paperwork and difficulties.

Adoption is costly, lengthy and expensive.

Social child benefit caps have not been raised in over twenty years and there is no tax relief for more than one child or adequate tax subsidies for low income working parents.

Domestic violence is not addressed adequately and how many women - and men - are stuck in violent relationships because they have no place to go in a housing market that only the rich can afford? Emotional violence is not yet recognized. There are no statistics available to highlight the extent of this problem.

Families are stuck in substandard or small government accommodation for years, as the list is too long and adequate long term affordable housing plans have not been provided. All the while developers profit on luxury housing and take our land.

Rape and sexual violence appears to be tolerated in a society where women are still being sexualised in the streets and in the workplace with little redress. When was the last time a rapist was convicted? How many women have never been sexually harassed? Are the young safe from sexual predators? Victims need to feel safe and courts sympathetic. The message this lack of provision sends out to young girls is that their bodies are not their own.

Parliament is not inclusive and only half of the population is fully represented. As women are not represented in decision making and a certain demographic of wealthy individuals are the only ones who make the ultimate decisions on our lives, matters that affect the everyday lives of Gibraltar citizens are not thought of. This is why I entered the public realm of politics.

Who wants to live in a place where the government has ultimate rights over women’s bodies and she has less rights than a corpse? I certainly don’t. Who condones a place where only those who can afford to, can control their choices, and where those who are vulnerable are forced to suffer more hardships? I don’t want to live in a Gibraltar where women are second class citizens and I certainly don’t want to live in a Gibraltar where women have to once again resort to taking hard drugs, excessive alcohol or self-harm to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Where abortion is safe and legal no one is forced to have one. Where it is illegal and women are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, they suffer serious health consequences or even death. Deciding when and when not to have a family should not be a criminal offence. Men and women should be equally responsible.

International human legal instruments and authoritative interpretations and bodies including but not limited to the UN, WHO, CEDAW and RCOG, BPAS and BMA support women’s claims to have safe access to reproductive health services, including abortion and human rights need to be protected, even in Gibraltar. Whilst the provision of safe abortion services is a must, the areas I have highlighted above are also unacceptable for a modern society and both sides of the debate should work together to be able to achieve the best outcome possible for Gibraltar families.

Tamsin Suarez is a member of the executive committee of Together Gibraltar.