28 November 2006

Attitudes to Abortion: summary of findings

Research shows changes since 1997.


This report presents the findings of a survey on awareness of and attitudes towards abortion. The research was conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of bpas in May 2006. This survey follows Ipsos MORI surveys conducted on behalf of bpas in 1997 and 2001 and tracks opinion over this period.

Summary of Findings

Legal availability of abortion for all who want it

  • Six in ten (59%) adults agree that abortion should be made legally available to all who want it. Just over a quarter (27%) disagree and 14% are either neutral or have no opinion.

  • Social classes ABC1 are more likely to agree that abortion should be made legally available for all who want it than those from social classes C2DE (62% and 56% respectively).

  • As previously found, respondents aged 55+ are less likely to agree with the legal provision of abortion for all who want it than younger groups. (54% of men aged 55+ agree with the legal provision of abortion compared with 63% of men aged 15-34 and 62% aged 35-54, and 49% of women aged 55+ agree, compared with 62% of women aged 15-34 and 64% aged 35-54).

  • Single people are least likely to disagree that abortion should be legally available to all who want it (22%, compared with 28% who are married/cohabiting and 54% who are divorced/separated/widowed).

    Change over time

    Compared with results from 1997 and 2001, support for the legal availability of abortion for all who want it has fallen (from 64% in 1997 and 62% in 2001 to 59% in 2006). Notably, the proportion of people who agree very strongly has fallen by six points from 20% in 2001 to 14% in 2006. Whilst opinion among women remains level over this period, a change in opinion appears to have taken place among men (65% of men supported the legal availability of abortion for all who wanted it in 2001, compared with 60% in 2006).

    However, levels of disagreement have not changed significantly since 2001, and looking at longer-term trends, disagreement is eight points lower now than in 1980. It is possible that recent developments in medicine and science, which have raised ethical issues relevant to abortion, may have caused some people to change their views.

    Should a woman have to continue with her pregnancy if she wants an abortion?

  • Over six in ten (63%) respondents agree that if a woman wants an abortion she should not have to continue with her pregnancy. One in five disagree (18%) and are neutral or have no opinion (19%).

  • There is a marked difference in level of agreement among older respondents - who are less likely to agree (54% of people aged 55+ agree, compared with 63% overall).

  • Better educated respondents are more likely to agree than those who have no formal qualifications.

  • We can infer from a comparison of the first two questions that when respondents consider the alternative to abortion (i.e. the woman continuing with her pregnancy) they are more inclined to support abortion (by four percentage points) than when no alternative is mentioned and less likely to oppose it (by nine percentage points).

    Change over time

    Overall, public support for a woman’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy has remained unchanged since five years ago (63% agree now, compared with 65% in 2001). However, the proportion of people who agree very strongly has fallen from 19% in 2001 to 13%. Conversely, the proportion who disagree very strongly has fallen from 6% in 2001 to just 3% now. These decreases in strength of opinion might suggest that although abortion is still a sensitive ethical issue, it is recognised that the proposed alternative may also be unsatisfactory.

    Approval of abortion under different circumstances

  • Levels of approval of abortion vary significantly according to the circumstances in which the abortion is wanted. Respondents are most likely to approve of abortion where there is evidence that the child would be born with serious physical disabilities (64%), although a smaller proportion approve of abortion in circumstances where there is evidence that the child would be born with serious learning difficulties that used to be known as ‘mental handicap’ (55%). They are least likely to approve in circumstances when the woman does not wish to have a child (48%).

  • Three in five people approve of abortion in circumstances where the woman is under 16 years old (60%).

  • Overall, significant variation in approval of abortion under different circumstances exists across sub-groups, as it did in 2001. In general, respondents with no qualifications are less likely to approve of abortion, yet in circumstances where there is evidence that the child would be born with serious physical disabilities or serious leaning difficulties, this group are more likely than respondents with qualifications to approve of abortion. Women are more likely than men to disapprove of abortion where a woman does not wish to have a child (42% compared with 34% of men). When analysed according to deprivation levels, very deprived respondents are much less likely to approve of abortion where the woman is under 16 (46% compared with 57% who are affluent and 69% who are very affluent).

  • Under each set of circumstances, between 12% and 21% of people who agree that abortion should be made legally available to all who want it disapprove of abortion. The most striking outcome is that over one in five (21%) of those who agree that abortion should be made legally available to all who want it disapprove of abortion in circumstances where there is evidence that the child will be born with learning difficulties. 

    Change over time

    Fewer people approve of abortion when the woman is under 16 than in 2001 (60% and 64% respectively). Mirroring this, disapproval of abortion under these circumstances has risen since 2001 (24% compared with 20% in 2001). However, fewer people disapprove now than in 1997 (24% compared with 29% in 1997).

    A smaller proportion approve of abortion where there is evidence that the child would be born with serious learning difficulties than in 1997 and 2001 (55% compared with 67% in 1997 and 64% in 2001). In addition, more people disapprove than in previous years (28% compared with 20% in 1997 and 21% in 2001).

    Approval of abortion where there is evidence that the child would be born with serious physical disabilities has also fallen since 2001 (64% compared with 70% in 2001) to a similar level to that seen in 1997 (66%). In addition, disapproval has risen since 2001 (from 15% to 20%). A higher proportion do not know whether they approve or disapprove now than in 1997 (16% and 13% respectively), which may be related to the expansion of the ethical debate regarding antenatal testing for fetal abnormalities.

    Although approval of abortion where a woman does not wish to have a child remains at a similar level to in 2001 (48% and 50% respectively), this remains higher than in 1997 (42%). However, disapproval has risen since 2001, from 33% to 38%, despite a fall of 13 percentage points between 1997 and 2001. 

    Support for abortion after 20 weeks

    In order to measure the impact of information provision about abortion on people’s support for abortion, a question was asked in two different ways to a split sample of c1,000 respondents.  Half of the sample was asked a shortened version of the question - without explanation of the facts - and the other half was asked a longer question, containing information about the circumstances in which women have abortions after 20 weeks.

  • Respondents are more likely to agree that abortion should continue to be allowed to take place up to 24 weeks if they are given information about the circumstances under which termination at the latter end of this period would happen. Over half (54%) agree that abortion should continue to take place up to 24 weeks when told that this involves two doctors agreeing that abortion is in the interests of the woman’s physical and mental health, and that abortion after 20 weeks is very rare.

  • Without provision of this information, fewer than half (46%) agree that abortion should continue to be allowed up to 24 weeks. Two fifths (38%) disagree that abortion should continue to take place up until 24 weeks, whereas 28% disagree when given the information. 

  • Men are more likely than women to agree that abortions should continue to take place up to 24 weeks, with or without the additional information.

  • Without provision of information, broadsheet readers are more likely than tabloid readers to agree that abortions should continue to take place up to 24 weeks (56% compared with 43% respectively).

    Read on:

    Poll shows majority support for legal abortion, Abortion Review, 28 November 2006

    ‘Two doctor’ rule hits the headlines, Abortion Review, 1 December 2006