Gibraltar began voting Thursday on plans to ease its draconian abortion law in a referendum delayed for over a year by the coronavirus pandemic.
The issue has exposed sharply opposing views within this tiny, normally closely-knit British enclave at the southernmost tip of Spain, which is home to some 32,000 people.
Polls opened at 9:00 am with voters able to cast their ballots at 15 polling stations. Voting closes at 10:00 pm (2000 GMT) with results due out several hours later.
The referendum was initially slated for March 19, 2020 but a week ahead of the vote it was postponed as virus cases began spiralling at the start of the pandemic.
Except in cases where it would save the mother's life, abortion is currently banned in Gibraltar on pain of life imprisonment, although such a penalty has not been applied in modern times.
The government is proposing changes to the law to allow abortion where a woman's mental or physical health is at risk -- such as in cases of rape or incest -- or when foetuses have fatal physical defects.
Although the changes have already been approved by Gibraltar's parliament, the referendum will decide whether or not that amended law is brought into force.
Under the changes, a woman would be able to undergo an abortion up to 12 weeks into her pregnancy if her mental or physical health is deemed at risk, or beyond if such damage would be grave and permanent.
There would be no time limit on cases involving fatal foetal anomaly.
Until now, women wanting to have an abortion have had to travel to Spain or to Britain to undergo the procedure.
- 'In Gibraltar's best interests' -
Ahead of the vote, both sides have been campaigning hard, with Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and two other party leaders releasing a video urging people to vote "Yes" to the proposed amendment to the crimes act that will regulate abortions in Gibraltar.
"My personal, professional & political opinion on the abortion referendum: it is in #Gibraltar's best interests to #VoteYes on Thursday 24th June," Picardo tweeted.
"No" campaigners have also been rallying support with hundreds of people dressed in pink and purple joining a pro-life "Save Babies, vote no" march through the city centre last week, chanting "We vote no!"
On the ballot, voters will be asked: "Should the Crimes (Amendment) Act 2019, that defines the circumstances which would allow abortion in Gibraltar, come into force?"
If the changes are approved, the law is expected to take effect fairly quickly although officials have not yet laid out a timeline.
The proposed changes came after Britain's Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that Northern Ireland's abortion laws, which at the time were almost identical to Gibraltar's, were incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
"It is therefore clear that if the equivalent law on abortion in Northern Ireland was in breach of the Convention, our identical, archaic law is too," wrote Picardo in an op-ed in Wednesday's Gibraltar Chronicle.
"It is our duty to vote to stop this ongoing breach."
Picardo has said he believed the changes were long overdue and that the plans would be approved "by a very large majority".