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Opinion poll: Clear majority against abortion on request

Public most strongly in favour of abortion where there is serious risk to health of the woman

Citizens’ Assembly in the Grand Hotel, Malahide, Co Dublin: goal is not to measure public opinion and a ballot conducted at the end of the process should not be considered a public opinion poll

A clear majority of Irish voters are against abortion on request, according to the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll. When asked if abortion should be legal in all circumstances, only 23 per cent agreed it should, with 67 per cent against and 10 per cent not expressing any opinion.

The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll interviewed 1,200 Irish voters on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week. Respondents were asked to consider whether abortion should be legal or not under a range of circumstances and to give their opinion on how many weeks into a pregnancy abortion should be permitted.

Today’s poll asked voters to consider a number of scenarios under which abortion may be permitted. The list of circumstances presented to voters mirrored those balloted on in the recent Citizens’ Assembly.

The public are most strongly in favour of abortion – 82 per cent agreement – in situations where there is a serious risk to the health of the woman. Those interviewed were also firmly in favour of making abortion legal in Ireland where a pregnancy has been the result of rape (76 per cent agreement) and when there is a serious risk to the mental health of the woman (72 per cent agreement). The majority view (67 per cent agreement) was that abortion should also be legal if the unborn child has a foetal abnormality that is likely to cause death before or shortly after birth.

Foetal abnormality

On the question of whether terminations should be legal in situations where a foetal abnormality would not cause death before or shortly after birth, there was quite a degree of equivocation – fewer respondents were in favour (36 per cent) than against (47 per cent), with a sizeable minority (17 per cent) unable to give an opinion.

Where the public drew the line was in allowing abortion on request (67 per cent against) or if sufficient financial or family supports are not in place (68 per cent against).

These findings do not chime with the results of the Citizens' Assembly ballot that may have given the impression that public opinion was broadly in favour of making abortion available without any restriction

What is pertinent to the debate is the consistency in opinion across the generations. Older voters were, not surprisingly, more conservative in their outlook but even those from the oldest age cohort (65 years and older) were in favour of allowing terminations where rape, fatal foetal abnormalities or a woman’s health are involved.

What this latest poll highlights is how the country remains conflicted. We want to show compassion to women in difficulty, yet reject the idea of abortion on demand. How difficult it will be to untangle this web of emotions is evidenced by the contrasting views we hold on abortion in situations involving mental health (in favour) and financial hardship (against) when it is impossible to determine where financial distress ends and emotional distress begins.

These findings do not chime with the results of the Citizens' Assembly ballot that may have given the impression that public opinion was broadly in favour of making abortion available without any restrictions. When interpreting the results of the Citizens' Assembly ballot it is important to keep in mind that the objective of this type of deliberative process is to provide a forum in which to observe and measure how opinion changes in response to intense stimuli (usually by debating the issues and listening to expert opinions). The goal of a Citizens’ Assembly is not to measure public opinion and a ballot conducted at the end of the process should not be considered a public opinion poll.

Gestational limits

The impact of the Citizens’ Assembly process on opinion is most obvious when we consider the responses of assembly participants to the question of how far into a pregnancy abortion should be permitted. The assembly ballot showed an appetite for no gestational limits amongst a significant, and in some instances substantial, cohort of participants.

Today’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll paints a very different picture. Our poll shows a majority (73 per cent) of the public would prefer to see a limit of 12 weeks, with just one in 10 (10 per cent) opting for up to 22 weeks and only 6 per cent advocating no restrictions as to how many weeks into pregnancy abortion should be permitted. One in 10 (11 per cent) did not give an answer to this question.

Today’s poll confirms public opinion in Ireland is not in favour of abortion on request but only in limited circumstances, with strict gestational limits.