Penny Mordaunt, Amber Rudd, Justine Greening, Nicky Morgan, Maria Miller – all support abortion law reform in Northern Ireland. Stella Creasy, who led the Parliamentary move to force the public funding of abortions there on a resistant Government, is also campaigning for change. Since women are more directly affected than men by abortion, it is right that what they say should be projected, in the Commons and out of it. But what is their collective take – not only about abortion in Northern Ireland, but also in the rest of the United Kingdom?
First things first. NatCen Social Research found last year that 70 per cent of people support abortion if the mother does not want the child. It confirmed a liberalising trend. All age groups have become more permissive in their attitudes over time, though people with fewer educational qualifications are more resistant to the practice.
The agency sticks to a few simple, clear questions that it has been asking since 1983. It highlights what may be a pro-choice shift among Catholics – conceding that “the sample sizes are small” – but doesn’t refer to the views of non-Christians. It would be interesting to know the view of non-Christian religious believers and, by extension, that of the ethnic minority population as a whole (among whom Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus are concentrated). Furthermore, NatCen Social Research’s method does not allow for questions about time limits. So it doesn’t tell us whether people support abortion when the mother doesn’t want the child up to birth, for example.
A ComRes poll also from last year found that, once such questions are introduced, answers take on a different flavour. The Spectator ran the findings from women respondents. Seventy per cent of women would like the current time limit for abortion to be lowered – 59 per cent wanting it set at 16 weeks or lower. A YouGov poll from 2011 found that 46 per cent of women would like to see a lower time limit, a significantly lower percentage than the more recent ComRes finding, but still a larger number than the 34 per cent backing the present 24 week limit.
NatCen Social Research found that “men and women are equally as likely to be supportive of abortion” but, as we have seen, it sticks to some broad repeated questions, and doesn’t get into time limits, sex selection, pregnancy support, consideration periods, doctor consent, and so on. Once these are probed, the picture changes. “Women tend to be slightly more in favour of stricter time limits,” Anthony Wells of YouGov wrote of that 2011 poll. Writing a year later, he said that “the media coverage of the abortion issue often seems to make the assumption that women are more opposed to restrictions on abortion. Polls consistently show the opposite – that women are more likely than men to support a reduction on the abortion limit.” He cited another YouGov poll, dated that year, plus separate ICM and Angus Reid polls.
There are some qualifications. The biggest one comes in the form not of a poll but a real-life vote – Ireland’s referendum last week. According to one exit poll, 66 per cent of men and 72 per cent of women voted to remove the eighth amendment from the country’s constitution. Perhaps a British referendum, in the unlikely event of one being held, would get a similar breakdown. Or maybe Ireland is simply “another country”. Wells told this site that more women have a general tendency to answer “don’t know” more often than men. It could be that in our imaginary referendum more of these non-votes would shift to the liberalising column.
It may also be that both women and men backed Yes in Ireland’s referendum in such emphatic numbers because, according to one reading of the Government’s proposals, the circumstances under which abortion will be legal will be relatively constricted. For example, there will be a twelve week limit rather than Britain’s 24 week limit. To return to where we started, there is clearly a majority in Northern Ireland in favour of reform, though it is likely, as in the Republic, that it will be less large in some border areas. (And Donegal, remember, voted No.)
All in all, public opinion might suggest support for a tightening of abortion law in the UK as a whole as well as loosening of it in Northern Ireland. The last significant change came in 1990, when the limit was lowered from 28 week to 24, but restrictions on abortions on disability grounds were removed altogether. But while polls are invaluable in providing information about what people think, they are less reliable as guides to how strongly they think it. It is hard to detect any great clamour for change either way. But whatever the truth may be, one conclusion is clear: women are more likely to back new restrictions on abortion than men.