This year marks 50 years since abortions became legally available (under certain circumstances) in Britain and yet the issue is still making headlines. While concerns were voiced that abortion rights could be restricted as part of a Conservative deal with the DUP, in June, abortions for Northern Irish women travelling to Britain were made free on the NHS, a move spearheaded by Stella Creasy MP. And in March, Diana Johnson MP won the right to introduce a bill to fully decriminalise abortion, in an attempt to move away from current law which technically means a woman who ends her own pregnancy could face life imprisonment.
So how does the British public view abortions? And are these moves towards a more liberal legal approach to abortions likely to be popular among the public?
Data from the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey reveals widespread support for allowing abortions in a number of different circumstances. There is near unanimous support (93%) for abortions when the woman’s health is endangered, while clear majorities support it if the woman does not want the child (70%) or if the couple cannot afford any more children (65%).
Public acceptance of abortions has grown over the past decade. Since 2005 support for allowing an abortion if the woman does not wish to have the child has increased from 60% to 70%. Over the same time period support for allowing an abortion if the couple can’t afford more children increased from 51% to 65%. Looking longer term there have been further increases since the early 1980s, when only a minority supported abortions if the woman did not wish to have the child (37%).
Proportion indicating the law should allow an abortion in different scenarios, 1983-2016
One of the most surprising findings is the increase in support among one of the most traditionally conservative groups. In the past our analysis has found Catholics to be least accepting of abortions compared with other religious groups; which might be expected given that the Catholic Church condemns all forms of abortion. However, between 1985 and 2016 Catholic support for allowing abortion if a women doesn’t want the child almost doubled, from 33% to 61%. This could be down to a general liberalising of attitudes in society as a whole, but could also be linked to Pope Francis’ softer stance on abortion. While there are still differences by religion, this change means Catholics now have views that are more similar to those of the country as whole.
Looking now to Northern Ireland, where abortion is available only under very strict circumstances, how do views there compare with the rest of the UK? The Northern Ireland Life and Times survey (NILTS) shows the Northern Irish to be far more conservative in their views of abortion than people in Britain, with the majority opposing abortions when a woman does not want children (43% say it “definitely should be illegal” and a further 17% say it “probably” should). However there is considerable support for legalising abortion in cases of serious foetal abnormality (81%), or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest (74%), which are currently not legal in Northern Ireland. There is also some evidence that views on abortion among religious people are becoming more liberal.
The findings from BSA show Britain has a liberal outlook on abortions; a clear majority of the public say abortions should be allowed by law and this view is growing. While Northern Irish views are more conservative than in Britain, NILTS shows a majority would like to see a liberalisation of the current laws. Our work in other areas has shown that changes in attitudes can happen following policy change; for example since the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013 attitudes towards same-sex relationships have become more liberal in Britain (although we cannot be certain whether the change in attitudes is a direct result of the policy change, or the policy change came at a moment of shifting attitudes). Looking forward, it will be interesting to see whether these two surveys show a continuation of increasing liberal views, particularly among religious groups, and whether policy developments around access to abortions will have any effect on public attitudes in the UK.
The British Social Attitudes 34th report can be found here: http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/
Further information on Northern Irish views on abortion is available from the Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey: http://www.ark.ac.uk/publications/updates/update115.pdf