Abortion poll findings dramatic but attitude change has been gradual

Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll: voters see once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a change

A Repeal march:  Voting intentions will also change because history has shown us that voting intentions change during referendum campaigns. Photograph:  Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

A Repeal march: Voting intentions will also change because history has shown us that voting intentions change during referendum campaigns. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

Today’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll shows, 65 per cent of Irish voters who expressed a preference are in favour of and 35 per cent against repealing the Eighth Amendment if the proposition is to provide abortion on request up to 12 weeks.

These findings represent, on the face of it, a dramatic change in attitudes to abortion on request in Ireland. However, attitudes towards something as personal as abortion change gradually, never dramatically, so voters must also be reacting to a change in the proposition.

Context is also hugely important to understanding today’s poll findings. Voters who are not satisfied with the current situation may be concerned about squandering a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a change.

Certainly, there has been a softening of attitudes towards abortion, driven in part by outputs from the Citizens’ Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment. Both groupings came down in favour of making abortion more widely available in Ireland having listened to and considered expert opinion and arguments on both sides.

Following debate

Voters have been paying attention to the debate. A very significant 19 per cent of voters in today’s poll agree to having become more open to the idea of abortion being more widely available in Ireland, compared to just 3 per cent who have become less open.

Inside Politics podcast: Poll analysis with Pat Leahy

We also know that voters are conflicted regarding the legality of abortion. They feel it should be legal in some circumstances and not in others as revealed by our May 2017 poll. This poll showed that the majority of voters believe abortion should be legal in cases of, for example, fatal foetal abnormality (67 per cent) or rape (76 per cent), but found only a minority (23 per cent) agreed it should be legal in all circumstances (when no gestational period was mentioned).

While voters are against making abortion without any restrictions legal, they are more liberal when asked to view the issue from someone else’s perspective. The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll from February 2013 showed 61 per cent agreeing with the statement – “abortion is a woman’s right to choose”.

Today’s poll looks at the question of abortion through yet another lens. This time voters were asked if they agreed or disagreed that abortion should be available on request up to 12 weeks. For many voters – those in favour of abortion in situations such as fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest, but not in favour of abortion on request – agreement meant they were willing to compromise. Today’s poll shows there is willingness to compromise.

Compromise means not getting everything you want and large cohort of those in favour of providing abortion up to 12 weeks are naturally not entirely comfortable with the proposition. A sizeable majority (72 per cent) of those in favour of repealing and legislating for abortion agreed with the statement – “I have reservations about providing abortion on request up to 12 weeks but also feel it is a reasonable compromise and will be an improvement on the current situation”.

Campaign effect

Voting intentions will change over time. In the first instance, what exactly will be proposed is not yet known. Voting intentions will also change because history has shown us that voting intentions change during referendum campaigns.

In the first divorce referendum in 1986, an early majority in favour (57 per cent – Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI Poll, April 1986) morphed into a majority against when the result was announced.

Public opinion in the second divorce referendum in 1995 followed a similar trajectory. A strong majority in favour (63 per cent – Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI Poll, February 1995) at the start of the campaign turned into the narrowest of victories on the day.

More recently, the marriage equality referendum passed comfortably with 62 per cent voting Yes. However, Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI polls showed support for marriage equality peaking at 80 per cent early in the campaign.

Voting intentions tend to move in only one direction once referendum campaigns on social issues begin. Maybe it will be different this time around.

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