Facing up to abortion

Mon, Feb 11, 2013, 00:00

The findings of today’s Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll on abortion will bring important and welcome reassurance to politicians still agonising about the potential political cost of fulfilling their responsibility to legislate for the X case. The poll shows an overwhelming acceptance (71 per cent) of the need for such legislation, with 84 per cent also saying abortion should be permitted when the life of the mother is threatened.

It reflects what can only be described as an extraordinary sea-change in attitudes. In December 1997, an Ispsos MRBI poll found only one in three were prepared to condone abortion if a mother’s life was threatened, while less than a quarter (23 per cent) approved of legislating for the X case. And between 2002 and today the percentage of those countenancing legal abortion in “certain circumstances” rose from 57 to 85 per cent. In 25 years the proportion willing to endorse abortion “where the woman’s health is at risk” has risen fivefold from 14 to 70 per cent.

In today’s poll such majorities in responses to the “woman’s health” question, moreover, are remarkably consistent across the country and in all social categories, only dropping to, or slightly below, 60 per cent support among over-65s and in the farming community.

The poll also provides for the first time a substantial democratic argument for those who have sought to extend the debate beyond the narrow grounds of the X case suicide exception also to focus on other exceptions – rape, unviable foetuses, the threat to a woman’s health – where it finds strong majorities (78, 79, and 70 per cent respectively) for allowing abortion. The arguments deserve to be heard.

The poll does not distinguish explicitly between what anti-abortion campaigners see as the key difference between what they call “direct abortion” and the, to them, morally acceptable, “indirect abortion” – when it is the unintentional consequence of a procedure necessary to save the life of the mother. It is a distinction, however, which most respondents clearly do not regard as pivotal – only one in 20 respondents said they would sanction abortion when the woman’s life is threatened but would not approve it if the foetus is unviable or the pregnancy the result of rape.

Public views are nuanced and have clearly been influenced by the debate, with only 37 per cent favouring what is sometimes called “social abortion”, “where a woman deems it to be in her best interest” – it appears that arguments about the necessity of an authorising role for a doctor have had a strong impact. Yet, paradoxically it might seem, a strong six out of 10 agree with the statement “abortion is a woman’s right to chose”, a phrase associated with the women’s and pro-choice movement.