Residents of Gibraltar voted by a wide margin Thursday to ease one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe following an emotional campaign, lifting a near-ban on the procedure and aligning the tiny British territory more closely with British legislation.
In a referendum, about 62 percent of voters approved changes in the law that will allow abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy if a woman’s mental or physical health is considered by a doctor to be at risk, or later in cases of severe fetal abnormality.
Until now, the law in Gibraltar had allowed abortion only to save a mother’s life. The law had set a potential criminal penalty of life imprisonment, though no such sentence had been imposed in recent history.
In contrast, British law allows abortion in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Parliament set the stage for Thursday’s vote in 2019, when it adopted language intended to ease abortion restrictions that it passed along to voters for approval. A referendum was originally planned for March 2020 but had been put off by the coronavirus pandemic until Thursday.
Gibraltar, a territory of 34,000 people at the tip of southern Spain, has maintained some significant legal distinctions from Britain. But the Gibraltar Parliament set the changes in motion after Britain’s Supreme Court warned in 2018 that Northern Ireland’s abortion ban was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Keith Azopardi, an opposition politician who was against easing the abortion restrictions, described the referendum campaign as “emotional and divisive.” The majority of Gibraltar’s residents are Catholic, and the bishop of Gibraltar had been among those who opposed an easing of the abortion law.
Turnout among Gibraltar’s 23,000 eligible voters was 53 percent.
Fabian Picardo, the leader of the government of Gibraltar, had supported the abortion changes. After casting his own ballot on Thursday, he retweeted a message from the London-based Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which said that “restrictive abortion laws endanger women’s lives by forcing them to either travel out of country, or access unsafe and illegal care.”
Early Friday morning, Mr. Picardo tweeted out a “We did it!” message and wrote that the government will “work to introduce the new services we will require to ensure counseling and safe and legal abortions.”
The changes will take effect in 28 days. Until now, the law in Gibraltar had meant that women seeking an abortion normally traveled elsewhere, often to Britain and sometimes across the land border to neighboring Spain, where abortion was legalized in certain circumstances more than 30 years ago.
Britain secured control of Gibraltar in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, though Spain has long contested British sovereignty. In December, negotiators struck a last-minute deal to avoid the possibility of travelers and goods being stranded at Gibraltar’s land border with Spain as Britain completed its exit from the European Union.
While British voters endorsed leaving the E.U. in a referendum in 2016, an overwhelming majority of voters in Gibraltar voted against the decision, known as Brexit.