The Abortion Referendum In The New Normal

By Mark Montegriffo

Gibraltar was due to vote on reproductive rights in March. The referendum was justifiably postponed a week before the set date. Two months later, it is as if we were not on the cusp of a pivotal moment of the Rock’s political history.

COVID-19 has claimed thousands of lives around the world. In the UK alone, at least a number the size of Gibraltar’s entire population has died from causes related to the coronavirus. With swift lockdown and social distancing measures correlating with a flattening the curve, the debate on what the new normal looks like must begin. We are beginning to do this in terms of environmental measures, such as the Line Wall Road closure. This was rightly applauded by environmental groups and more efforts to curb pollution must be encouraged. The same innovative thinking should apply to other areas of rights and public policy too.

Worldwide, we have seen coronavirus exacerbate class divides and inequalities. In jurisdictions where the lack of abortion access is one of those inequalities, governments have used coronavirus as cover to further restrict reproductive healthcare.  In seven Republican governed states in the USA, lawmakers have sought to prohibit abortions. Some attempts have been found to be illegal and unconstitutional, with courts temporarily blocking them.

For many of these lawmakers, their pro-life stance is well documented. Indeed, the Republican Party has long been funded by the moneyed pro-life lobby. Without the pro-life vote, it would be hard to imagine Trump garnering enough votes to win the presidential election in 2016. It was never coronavirus concerns that motivated the governors of Texas and Oklahoma, among others, to restrict abortion access. In Poland and Argentina, who have a similar status to Gibraltar when it comes to reproductive rights, pro-choice activists have also found novel forms of protesting against their government’s efforts to roll back any potential progress. 

Just as pro-choice activists in Gibraltar have said that abortions do not stop happening when they are illegal, abortions do not stop happening when there is a pandemic. Add on to that the issue that there are border restrictions and it makes even the unsafe abortions harder to access. In some ways, the situation on abortion access is a lot worse now than it was before the referendum that never was.

Sadly, there has been little push-back on the postponement of the abortion referendum. Having a traditional vote on March 19th might have put lives at risk. Having a traditional in-person vote today might put lives at risk. Several states in America arguably have blood on their hands for allowing in-person voting in some elections. Recently, however, elections local and state-wide have been moving to voting by mail. This has allowed the democratic calendar to move on somewhat while enforcing the same level of social distancing.

In Gibraltar, we normally only vote once every four years (apart from the European elections – oh, how I miss them). Barring another pandemic in 2023 the debate on socially distanced voting may have passed, or perhaps we can start thinking now about how voting can be made safer. Certainly, if the abortion referendum is actually going to happen, there is no reason why it cannot involve voting by mail.

With measures that prevent an increase in the possibility of the virus spreading, we could still have the vote done and dusted during the ‘unlocking’ the Rock and within this calendar year. It would entail keeping physical protests and gatherings to a very bare minimum, but the protests had been going on for months prior to the referendum anyway which was only seven days away. Besides, as the protests on the same issue around the world have shown, the age of protests has taken on a new online format for the time being. It does not mean you need to pause democracy completely.

Undoubtedly, a postponement of the referendum sine die is objectively a positive thing for anybody who views abortions as comparable to genocides and the holocaust. But just the possibility of one woman or girl in an abusive relationship during isolation who wishes to end a pregnancy – in fact, one woman full-stop who deserves the right to bodily autonomy – that is not something that goes away because we are trying to limit the spread of coronavirus.

A democracy must be able to adapt to deal with multiple crises at once, whether it is in the form of a public health crisis, an economic crash, or an act of terrorism. Unlike after a terrorist attack, to keep calm and carry on would be an act of ignorance and callousness, not resilience and defiance.