By Robert Firth
REACHING Spain from Gibraltar, you first must cross the runway of an airport. Before the pandemic, thousands of people made the journey across the airfield, bordered on either side by the sea, each day.
Behind them, the 426m tall limestone mound from which Gibraltar takes its nickname, ‘the rock.’
Among these people will have been women from Gibraltar heading to Spain to get an abortion. One of the most common procedures in the world, but illegal in the British territory. Punishable by life imprisonment.
Early last year it looked like the need for women to make this journey would soon be a thing of the past.
Gibraltar’s parliament had passed legislation to decriminalise abortion in 2019, on the condition it received public approval. A referendum was scheduled for March 19 2020 and polls were predicting 70 per cent of people would vote yes.
But five days before the vote was due to be held, it was postponed. The government said it feared Covid-19 would deter older voters from turning out.
But it made no mention of how the pandemic would also make it harder for women in Gibraltar to get an abortion. Travel between Spain and Gibraltar has been restricted during most of the pandemic.
People can cross the border for medical reasons, but they must show proof of an appointment to border guards. Activists say many women are reluctant to do so because of stigma around abortion and how quickly word spreads in Gibraltar’s tight-knit community of 34,000 people.
Travel between different municipalities in Andalucia, the Spanish region bordering Gibraltar, is also currently prohibited. The town of La Linea which lies on the border with Gibraltar is in a different municipality to the nearest abortion clinic, a thirty-minute drive away in the port city of Algeciras.
Faced with additional obstacles, Gibraltar’s women are turning online to get an abortion. Statistics from online abortion network, Women on Web, show that requests for abortion pills from women in Gibraltar more than doubled between 2019 and 2020.
There were 40 requests for help received through its website from Gibraltar in 2020 compared to 18 in 2019.
Venny Ala-Siurua, operations manager at Women on Web, says that the figure would probably be higher had a change in the Google search results algorithm halfway through the year not resulted in the group losing 90 per cent of its traffic overnight.
The surge in women ordering pills from online abortion services came as a revelation to even seasoned campaigners in the territory. “We were really surprised,” says Nicole Banda, chairperson of No More Shame, a pro-choice group in Gibraltar.
“We can only assume that women who might have in the first place gone to the clinic in Algeciras, which is 20 minutes up the road from the frontier, were fearful of having to do that and were instead contacting Women on Web.”
To these women, online abortions offer a safe, cheap and convenient alternative. Activists are keen to point out that the pills used, mifepristone and misoprostol, have a lower mortality rate than Viagra and paracetamol.
They are also significantly cheaper than surgical abortions. Women on Web recommends a donation between 70 and 120 euros, far less than the 700 to 800 euros an abortion can cost at a clinic in Spain.
“Medical abortion resembles a miscarriage, the process is the same,” says Venny Ala-Siura from Women on Web. “If a woman needs aftercare, they can choose not to tell the doctor and tell them they’ve had a miscarriage.”
But they are not for everyone. At least 15 women from Gibraltar still opted to travel to the Algeciras clinic alone in the first six months of 2020 despite travel restrictions, according to No More Shame.
Many women still fear customs officers intercepting pills upon arrival. The medication comes without an invoice, meaning it’s more likely to be opened by officials trying to determine the custom payable. Nonetheless, possession of the pills is not illegal in itself.
The Government of Gibraltar says it expects the referendum to be held in the first six months of 2021. The same government backtracked on promises of an imminent new referendum date back in May.
Meanwhile, Gibraltar’s women are left in limbo. Some question the governing GSLP party’s handling of the change in law.
“There should never have been a referendum in the first place,” Jackie Anderson from opposition party Together Gibraltar tells me. “The government is elected to govern and this is an issue of basic human rights.”
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