Just one in five people in Northern Ireland believe rape victims should not be allowed to have an abortion.
The vast majority agree that women who become pregnant because of a sexual assault are entitled to a termination.
And there is growing support from MLAs, with around two-thirds backing the right to abort a child in those circumstances.
The findings are contained in a survey carried out by the Millward Brown polling company on behalf of the Family Planning Association, a charity which provides information to woman about pregnancy planning.
They are revealed days after Jim Wells, the man tipped to become the next Health Minister, caused fury by insisting that rape was not a valid reason for abortion.
Audrey Simpson from the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland said it showed Mr Wells was not in line with the public mood. “This survey is sending out a very clear message from people who are living in the real world,” she said.
“It shows that people are sentitive to the issue of rape and the fact that women are mature enough to make decisions for themselves.”
The row erupted after it emerged 43 abortions had been carried out in Northern Ireland last year.
Mr Wells said the current law — which permits terminations only to save the mother’s life or prevent long-term physical or mental damage — should remain, including where the woman had been raped.
He said aborting an unborn child was “punishing” the “ultimate victim” of the crime, and suggested the baby could be handed over for adoption.
The comments led to angry crit
icism from pro-choice campaigners and victims’ groups. The DUP also distanced itself from his comments, issuing a statement saying it recognised that rape victims “may be included” in abortions carried out in Northern Ireland.
Now a survey reveals Mr Wells’ views are out of line with the majority of people.
It polled 1,376 people and found just 18% disagreed that abortion should be legal when the pregnancy is the result of rape.
Some 59% agreed that it should be legal, a further 21% said they didn’t know.
An anonymous survey of MLAs also found strong support for terminating a pregnancy in cases of rape, with 66% of politicians agreeing it was grounds for legal abortion.
That has risen from 34% of MLAs three years ago.
Mr Wells is currently in Tanzania and was not able to respond to requests for comment on the poll findings yesterday.
Q: Abortion should be legal when the pregnancy is the result of rape/incest
Don’t know: 21%
Q: Abortion should be legal when the baby is at risk of serious and permanent defects
Don’t know: 24%
The poll was carried out by Millward Brown Ulster, an independent marketing company, on behalf of the Family Planning Association during February and March. The total number of respondents was 1,376
It must be woman’s choice and hers alone
By Audrey Simpson
The recent assertions by Jim Wells and anti-choice campaigners that rape should not be considered grounds for an abortion in Northern Ireland indicate that they are not pro-women.
But significantly it shows that they are also out of touch with political and public opinion.
After last year’s Assembly elections, the Family Planning Association carried out an anonymous survey with MLAs and 66% of respondents believed that rape and incest should be grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.
Earlier this year we also commissioned an independent market research company to carry out a poll on public attitudes to abortion and this revealed that almost three in five respondents believed that abortion should be legal when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
These surveys clearly dispel the myth that there is no political or public support for a change in abortion legislation.
Women who have been traumatised by a brutal sexual assault don’t want to be forced to continue with a pregnancy.
The Family Planning Association is pro-choice not pro-abortion, as Mr Wells states.
Abortion is not always the answer for some women, but all women deserve the right and our support and respect to make the choice that is right for them.
Remember that woman could be your daughter, sister, wife, partner, friend...
Audrey Simpson is director of the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland