More than one in four people in Northern Ireland support a woman’s right to choose on abortion, an exclusive Belfast Telegraph poll has revealed.
The results suggest the public here is sharply divided over the issue. Another 26% believe that the laws should be toughened so that terminations are only available when a mother would die if the pregnancy was to continue.
The poll provides a fascinating insight into views on one of the most controversial subjects in our society, brought into the spotlight recently by the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast and the death of Savita Halappanavar in the Republic.
Currently, the law states terminations can be performed only under certain conditions: if the pregnancy involves a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the woman, or her existing children, than having a termination.
All Executive parties except Alliance, which allows a free vote on the issue, have policies strongly against changing the laws.
But the poll results show that the political establishment does not reflect the range of opinion among voters and potential voters.
The findings come from a major survey commissioned by the Belfast Telegraph and carried out by LucidTalk, members of the British Polling Council (BPC).
A weighted sample of 1,130 adults was surveyed between November 6 and 23; 90% were questioned by telephone and the rest interviewed face to face.
They were asked: “Free abortion is currently allowed in Northern Ireland where there is the likelihood of serious and long-term danger to a prospective mother’s mental or physical wellbeing if her pregnancy continues. Which, if any, of these statements do you agree with?”
The first of four options was: “Abortion should be available to any woman who chooses it after being counselled on alternatives.”
This is marginally more liberal than the situation which applies in the rest of the UK, where the approval of two doctors is required.
The results showed that 25.9% agreed with this proposition. The proportion agreeing was roughly the same across the two main religious groups (28.3% of Protestants and 27.8% of Catholics).
But support was markedly higher among all women surveyed (29.9%) than men (21.4%). It was higher among the young, 34.9% for 18-24-year-olds, and fell gradually through the age range until it reached a low of 20.4% for those over 65.
Individual polls are only a snapshot of opinion but the age difference, with highest support among young women, may suggest that it is a question on which feeling is shifting. Women of child-bearing age — the most supportive — are the section of the adult population most directly affected. But even among pensioners, more than a fifth of those questioned opted for abortion on demand.
A second option was: “Abortion should be available for rape or incest victims who choose it after counselling.”
This was the specific category ruled out by Jim Wells, the DUP politician earmarked to take over as Health Minister. Some 18.6% of those surveyed agreed. This was most popular among women (19.4%) and those over 65 (22.7%).
Rape and incest victims have no lawful right to an abortion. But the courts have allowed it in some cases where there was medical evidence that they are likely to suffer serious and long-term damage or become “physical and mental wrecks” if pregnancy continued.
Combining one and two reveals that 45% want some liberalisation of the abortion laws.
The statement that: “This situation should be kept as it is” was endorsed by 26.9% of the population. However, the pollsters included those who did not express an opinion or who didn’t know in this group, effectively giving the status quo the benefit of the doubt.
A further substantial group (26.5%) believed that abortion should only be allowed “if the mother is likely to die if the pregnancy continues”. This would mark a tightening of current practice. The most restrictive option was that: “Abortion is no better than shooting a child in the head and should be treated as murder”. It was favoured by only 2% of the sample, all of them men.
Under the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act which governs abortion here, “procuring a miscarriage” carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Although the courts never imposed it, it remains on the books.
John Larkin, the Attorney General, said before being appointed that aborting a foetus was the same as shooting a disabled child in the back of the head shortly after it was born. The poll suggests few people accept his argument.
Poll shows politicians out of step with man and woman on the street
By Liam Clarke
A common theme running through our poll is that opinion among politicians at Stormont is often at odds with what is being said on the streets.
It’s often more conservative and less diverse, and there are differences between voters and the high proportion of non-voters who our political parties don’t reach.
Take abortion. There is a pro-life consensus running which unites the SDLP and the two unionist parties, while Sinn Fein is also fairly conservative on the issue and Alliance has no firm position. The issue is generally debated in Stormont in terms of stabilising the status quo.
That is not the way it is on the streets. Our poll shows a wide divergence of opinion on the issue, perhaps sharpened by the debate around the Marie Stopes clinic.
The death of Savita Halappanavar (right) occurred in Galway a week before polling started and it coincided with an ongoing campaign by her family to have Ireland’s abortion laws, broadly similar to our own, liberalised.
This LucidTalk poll is no flash in the pan or kneejerk reaction to tragic events. In February and March another company, Millward Brown, surveyed 1,376 people across the province for the Family Planning Association with different questions. It found that 59% of people favoured abortion when a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, and only a third of people, 32%, opposing it where “the baby is at risk of serious and permanent defects”.
This is not a consensus for change, but it does highlight the need for a more open debate than we get at Stormont. When we break down the people who we counted as favouring no change on abortion we found that more than a quarter of them (28%) actually had no firm opinion.
We need a conversation with more points of view and more options at the table. Marie Stopes should be |consulted, not put on trial at the justice committee.
Poverty, particularly in the private sector, where wages are lowest and worries over the costs of Christmas most acute, is the elephant in the room.
While politicians take moral stands on any issue to do with sex, the population is struggling, and often failing, to make ends meet. Christmas is a nightmare for many, and one that will leave a long tale of debt into the new year.
Scrooge-like decisions to screw the most out of Christmas shoppers in parking charges are not making our politicians or our hard-pressed town centres, which the parties claim to champion, very popular. It is driving people onto the internet, not just to save time, but to avoid debt and zero tolerance parking fines.
In fairness, there are no magic wands to please everyone in a recession but we are now entering a season that should be about compassion, goodwill and tolerance.
The politicians should use it to listen very carefully to this expression of public opinion as it unfolds in the coming days.
Religion makes little difference in divisive topic
By Gerry Lynch
The long recession continues to bite with only 11% of respondents to the November Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll saying that paying for Christmas would not be a problem for them (see page 6).
Almost half of respondents (48%) said they would be cutting back on Christmas spending this year, potentially bad news for the local economy and for retailers in particular.
Some seven per cent of respondents said that they might need a pay-day loan or other short-term credit facility to pay for Christmas expenses, while a third of respondents said they had not yet cleared their credit card or other loans since last year’s holiday season.
Even among those of social classes A and B, generally the highest earners, only 30% said that paying for Christmas was not a problem for them. Respondents over 65 were most likely to say they would be cutting back on Christmas, a whopping 55% reporting they would be reducing their spending this year.
The youngest respondents, 18-24s, on the other hand, were much more likely than others to say they might need a short-term loan, with 13% saying they might need such a facility.
On the vexed question of abortion, opinions were predictably split in many directions: 26% believed that any woman should have access to abortion after counselling; 19% felt it should be available to rape or incest victims only; 26% that it should be only available in the event of a threat to the life of the mother, while a further 27% supported the retention of the status quo. Only a tiny proportion of respondents (two per cent) felt that abortion in any circumstances should be treated as murder.
There was little difference in the level of support for abortion on demand after counselling by religion — the level of support for this option was identical among Catholics, Protestants and those of other or no religion. Although this may be surprising given the Catholic Church’s trenchant opposition to abortion, it parallels the pattern of support found in other mixed Protestant/Catholic countries such as Germany and the United States.
There was also little difference in attitudes to abortion by social class. However, there were sharp differences of opinion by gender.
By a clear 30% to 21%, women were more likely than men to support abortion on demand after counselling.
Men were more likely than women (by 28% to 25%) to support the idea that abortion should be further restricted than at present in Northern Ireland, by permitting it only in the case where there is a threat to the life of the mother.
There were also sharp differences of opinion by age, with 18-24-year-olds by far the most likely respondents (35%) to support the provision of abortion on demand after counselling.
Gerry Lynch is a LucidTalk analyst