International Women's Day 2018: In UK-territory Gibraltar, women face the strictest anti-abortion laws in Europe

Joe Wallen tells the story of those who cross the border into Spain for a termination, and those who are fighting for reproductive rights back on the Rock

Joe Wallen
Gibraltar
Thursday 08 March 2018 00:51
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Rose Thompson, who had a termination when she fell pregnant by an abusive partner, would face life imprisonment under Gibraltarian law
Rose Thompson, who had a termination when she fell pregnant by an abusive partner, would face life imprisonment under Gibraltarian law

“I am not brave enough to show you who I am, but I feel compelled to tell you my story. In 2012, I became pregnant.”

Maria Povedano (not her real name) is a 26-year-old woman who lives in Gibraltar. Carefully concealing her face, she tells The Independent about how she took the impossible choice and travelled to mainland Spain in order to seek an abortion – an act which still, in a British Overseas Territory, in 2018, is punishable by life imprisonment.

“At the clinic in Spain, they didn’t tell me everything about the procedure,” she says. “When I walked up the stairs to the room to have the operation, I started crying hysterically.

“I kept on asking if I was going to die; panic overwhelmed me. After the operation, tears could not stop running down my face. I cannot describe the guilt I felt.”

For most Gibraltarian women, crossing the border is a regular and stress-free occurrence

Six years later, Maria still resides in Gibraltar, and as such cannot speak openly about her experience without risking arrest. She says she is now “with her soul mate – we have two beautiful children”.

“However, after giving birth to my eldest I entered into a deep depression. I couldn’t leave my house and was having lots of suicidal thoughts. I couldn’t live with myself.

“Seeing my children smile and laugh is the best feeling in the world, but for me it is also the most painful thing in the world because it fills me with vivid memories of travelling to Spain for the abortion.”

Unlike Maria, most Gibraltarians find crossing the border from the territory to Spain to be a pleasurable, everyday occurrence.

And on their return they are welcomed back by the Rock towering majestically above them. Lights twinkle in the booming offices of the World Trade Centre, a global fintech hub, and laughter echoes from the deck of the Sunborn, the world’s first 5-star super-yacht hotel.

Indeed, on first impressions, Gibraltar has all the trappings of a thriving modern city-state, in the mould of Hong Kong or Singapore.

It is certainly affluent enough to match its rivals. In 2017, Gibraltar’s Gross Domestic Product per capita was £56,612 – the fourth highest in the world.

But not everything seems to have advanced at the pace of its booming economy.

Yolanda Garcia*, 29, travels from Gibraltar into Spain several times a week.

“Everyone in Gibraltar crosses regularly; we all have business in Spain, most of us have family there, things are very different these days,” she tells The Independent.

However, there was one journey across the border which changed her life forever. In late 2016, Yolanda discovered she was pregnant, and after much deliberation she decided to get an abortion.

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“It was the most difficult decision of my life,” she sighs. “But, as I was not with the father and it would have put my career in jeopardy I decided to go ahead with the termination.”

Yolanda, like countless other Gibraltarian women, was forced to cross the frontier into Spain to get a backstreet abortion in one of the nearby border towns, such as La Linea de la Concepcion or Cadiz.

That’s because Gibraltar possesses the harshest penalty for abortion in the entirety of Europe. According to Section 162(1) of the 2011 Crimes Act: “A pregnant woman who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, unlawfully administers to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or unlawfully uses any other means with that intent, commits an offence or is liable on conviction to imprisonment for life.”

Yolanda felt this law gave her no choice.

“The whole thing cost me €500 all in,” she says. “I couldn’t afford to go to a proper specialist clinic in the UK or one in a bigger Spanish city like Malaga, so I had to go to a doctor in La Linea.

“Immediately, I did not feel comfortable – his practice was dirty and his staff rude. I felt like I was on a conveyor belt.”

However, unable to consider an alternative, Yolanda went ahead with the termination.

In the immediate aftermath she knew something was wrong. “I couldn’t stop throwing up and had awful cramps in my stomach and pelvic region over the next 48 hours,” she groans at the memory of the experience.

Too afraid to visit a doctor in Gibraltar with such symptoms, she borrowed money from a close friend she swore to secrecy and visited a private doctor, again in Spain.

During the abortion, Yolanda had contracted endometritis, an infection in the lining of the uterus and genital tract. While the initial infection fortunately cleared up after a course of antibiotics, Yolanda says she continues to endure daily stomach cramps.

Furthermore, despite trying to conceive over the last months, she has not become pregnant. She worries this is because her abortion has affected her ability to have children.

“My partner doesn’t understand why I haven’t conceived,” she says shaking her head. “Worst of all, I can’t tell him my fears – I’m worried he’d leave me and word will spread around Gibraltar; it is such a small place.

“Who knows what would happen to me if word got out here, I could get in serious trouble with the law, and my family might never speak to me again.”

Yolanda continues to suffer the physical and mental trauma of her botched abortion. She is exasperated: “It really is incredible in Gibraltar, where politicians boast that we have some of the best healthcare treatment in the world, that women like me are risking their health going across the border in secret for dangerous operations.”

It may be too late for Yolanda and Maria, but for future generations of Gibraltarian women there are two figures are standing up and seeking change.

Tamsin Suarez, 43, and Anne-Marie Struggles, 51, are two members on the committee of the Gibraltar Women’s Association.

Despite being threatened online, they have spoken out publicly in support of decriminalising abortion in Gibraltar and giving women the choice as a basic human right.

“Gibraltar is such a conservative place,” Struggles told The Independent. “We like to think we are Gibraltarian suffragettes – we don’t encourage women to get abortions but we think they should have the choice: we are pro-choice.”

They aim to present their research into the experiences of Gibraltarian women like Maria and Yolanda over the upcoming months.

“There is a lack of women’s rights in Gibraltar – it is a patriarchal society,” rebukes Suarez.

“We believe that the criminalisation of abortion leads to discrimination and infringes on women’s dignity.

“It is so sad when you hear anonymous stories from women that are unable to get any advice here or to help with their situations, and can never talk about this big secret in the back of their minds.”

Despite its booming economies, Gibraltar is still a very conservative, patriarchal place

Well informed and aware that the UN has opened dialogue with the other nations in Europe where abortion is illegal – Malta, the Republic of Ireland and Poland – the pair plan to write to the UN in the hope a delegation can put pressure on Gibraltarian leaders to change the law.

The pair believe the “prehistoric” law still exists today thanks to the influence that religious groups, in particular the Catholic Church, still wield on the Rock.

Furthermore, the small-town feel of Gibraltar means that many women do not feel comfortable approaching doctors or health-care practitioners for fear of word spreading around the community. Their concern helps to cement the idea that abortion is inherently wrong.

When contacted, the Gibraltarian government refused to consider the possibility of changing the law. “Abortion other than in certain, defined, medically certified circumstances is illegal under Gibraltar law,” a government spokesman said.

“The Cabinet has not considered changing this policy. The matter is not one on which the parties that form the government sought a policy mandate to pursue a reform of the existing position.”

Davinia Caruana*, 34, booked a secret termination in Spain but changed her mind at the last minute, and she believes she made the right decision.

Regardless, she thinks it should be up to the woman in question to decide what to do should she fall pregnant.

“Nobody, young or old, wise or foolish, deserves to be backed into the corner of having a baby they did not plan or they did not want,” she says.

“Let’s talk about this, let’s put abortion on the agenda, because once it is there we not only empower women with the choices about their bodies, but we inspire our children to be a little bit more open minded, and we encourage societal change.”

The “Gibraltarian Suffragettes” know they have a long way to go. But, like their resolute sisters from 100 years ago, they won’t give up.

“I think we have to move away from personal and religious choice and think about human rights issues for all,” says Suarez.

“We are not with other developed countries – we have a law here which is equal with those in non-developed countries, and it is very shocking.

 ‘Did going to Spain affect me mentally? Yes. Was having an abortion the wrong choice? No’

“Women have no information here. They are rushing into it and not getting the before or aftercare,” Suarez continues shaking her head.

“With abortion it is like we have gone back 100 years – we can’t just stay where we are because there are some powerful voices against us.”

Rose Thompson*, 35, had an abortion when she fell pregnant for the third time, knowing the birth of another child would tie her to her abusive partner.

“I was married to a man who was emotionally and physically abusive,” Rose confided in The Independent. “Any sexual relations we had, was forced by him.

“When I fell pregnant for the third time, I was devastated. I was already suffering with severe depression, sleep deprivation and was trying to find a way to leave my partner.

“When I informed him I was pregnant, he was elated but I felt trapped.”

She explains: “Although he disagreed with my decision, he drove me to a clinic in Spain, I was terrified as I didn’t actually know what the procedure entailed.

“After getting home I had no one to turn to. No one knew what I had just done, I was alone with the weight of the world on my shoulders.

“I felt guilty – but not for terminating my pregnancy. I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to love my baby the same way as I loved the two children I already had.

“But I knew I made the right decision and I left my abusive husband seven months later. Three years later I was happier, safer and I gave birth to another baby.”

Thompson adds: “Every time I look at her, I am totally reassured that I made the right decision.”

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