Where does the British public stand on abortion in 2023?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
October 12, 2023, 7:36 AM GMT+0

Abortion is widely supported in the UK

While recent events in the USA demonstrate that the abortion debate there is far from settled, a new YouGov UK poll shows a very different situation here.

On the basic question of whether or not abortion should be allowed, 87% of Britons say that it should, compared to only 6% who say it should not – 7% are unsure.

Attitudes among men and women are identical in this regard.

Is 24 weeks the right limit? And is it too easy or hard to get an abortion?

Abortion law currently makes a distinction between pregnancies before and after 24 weeks. Before the 24 week limit abortions are readily available, but afterwards they are only available under specific circumstances, such as risk to the health of the mother or severe disability on the part of the child.

Britons tend to think the 24 week status quo is about right (49%). However, a quarter (25%) think it is too late, and the limit should be brought forward. This view is more common among women, and particularly older women – while only 15% of men feel this way, this rises to 27% of women under 40 and 39% of women aged 40 and over.

A further 6% of Britons think the 24 week limit is too early, and should be pushed back.

When it comes to the general restrictions around getting an abortion in the UK, most Britons (55%) likewise think the law currently gets the balance about right.

One in ten Britons (10%) nevertheless think the law makes it too difficult to get an abortion in the UK – and this rises to 19% among women under the age of 40.

One in eleven (9%) think it is too easy to get an abortion in the UK.

Under what circumstances should abortion be allowed?

One of the key questions when it comes to abortion is under what circumstances should it be permitted.

Before 24 weeks, 65% of Britons think that abortion should be available to any woman who wants it. A further one in five think it should only be available under specific circumstances (16%) or extremely restricted circumstances (5%).

Once the 24 week limit has been passed, only 17% think abortion should continue to be available unrestricted. At this point 45% think it should only be available in specific circumstances, and 19% in extremely restricted circumstances – and 5% think it shouldn’t be allowed at all.

A follow-up question to those who chose the ‘specific circumstances’ or ‘extremely restricted circumstances’ option for either time period explored what circumstances they felt it should and should not apply to. (For simplicity, we have combined these answers with those from the previous question and presented them as a percent of the whole public.)

Of the five circumstances we listed, 80-85% of Britons think abortion should be allowed before 24 weeks. However, after 24 weeks there is more variance.

If the mother’s life is at risk, 79% of Britons think an abortion is permissible when the pregnancy is more than 24 weeks advanced. This falls to 72% in the event of risk to the mother’s health. If the child would not survive long after birth then 71% of Britons think an abortion is acceptable after the 24 week mark – as do 66% if the child would be severely disabled.

If the pregnancy were the result of rape, 65% of Britons think it would be ok to allow abortion after 24 weeks.

Across all circumstances, women are 7-9 percentage points more likely than men to say that an abortion should be allowed in that scenario (with the difference being that men are more likely to answer “don’t know”, rather than being more opposed to abortion under those terms).

There is also effectively no difference in attitudes between young and old in each gender, with figures almost exclusively within the margin of error of one another (although young women are somewhat more likely to say abortions should always be available than their elders, this difference is evened out by the increased number of older women who think abortion is acceptable in each specific circumstance).

Should women face criminal prosecution for having abortions outside the set rules?

In June this year, a woman was given a two year custodial sentence for inducing an abortion at approximately 32-34 weeks. The news was met with outrage in some quarters, with campaign groups saying that no woman should ever face criminal charges and jail time for having an abortion.

The public agrees. By 52% to 21%, Britons say that women who have abortions outside of the rules should not face criminal prosecution.

While men and women both favour not prosecuting women for having abortions that breach the laws, this sentiment is stronger among women (who oppose prosecution by 59% to 16%) than men (who do so by 44% to 25%). Young women in particular are more likely to oppose prosecution (64% of the under-40s).

There is currently no legal right in the UK to have an abortion. The legal situation is in fact that abortion is illegal in the UK, with certain exceptions: the vast majority of abortions are carried out under a liberal interpretation of the abortion rule that allows women to have an abortion if it would have an adverse impact on their mental health. Campaigners, including most notably Labour MP Stella Creasy, have pointed to the recent roll-back of abortion rights in the USA as a reason to enshrine the right to an abortion in law.

This move would be widely supported - three quarters of Britons (74%) support changing the law to enshrine a legal right to abortion. Only 11% are opposed.

Seven in ten women (77%) support making the change (including 86% of women under 40), as do 71% of men.

What other abortion law changes do Britons support?

Allowing abortion pills to be taken at home

During the pandemic, abortion rules were changed so that women could have an ‘early abortion’ (i.e. induce an abortion by taking two abortion pills) at home. Britons are split 42%-42% on whether this rule should remain in place, or return to how it was.

Men and women overall are similarly divided, however when you add in age as a factor we can see a difference the generations. Women under 40 want to keep to the current rules by 51% to 39%, while among women aged 40 and over these figures are effectively reversed: 38% want to stick with the new rules while 48% want them to go back. There is a similar trend among men, with those under 40 wanting the rules to remain as they are by 45% to 33%, while older men are split 40%-43%.

Making abortion pills available over the counter

Far fewer support an even greater liberalisation of the rules: allowing abortion pills to be bought over the counter at a pharmacy, rather than requiring a prescription. Only 33% would back such a move, compared to 53% who are opposed. Men and women from each age group tend to oppose this level of access to abortion pills.

Pre-abortion counselling

Some pro-life campaign groups have called for a mandatory counselling session prior to having an abortion.

Six in ten Britons (63%) would support this requirement, including 66% of women and 60% of men. While the genders appear in agreement, the generations are not, with younger Britons noticeably less supportive of such a requirement (although still net supportive overall). For instance, while 75% of women aged 40 and over back a counselling requirement, this falls to 48% among women under 40.

Likewise, the 66% of men over 40 who support this proposal falls to 47% among men under 40.

Allowing nurses and midwives to approve abortions

It has been suggested that the list of medical practitioners with the power to approve an abortion to be expanded beyond just doctors to include nurses and midwives. More than six in ten Britons (63%) would approve of this change, with just 24% opposed.

Abortion clinic protest bans

Finally, pro-choice campaigners have called for a ban on anti-abortion protests outside abortion clinics – a rule the public strongly endorse. Three quarters of Britons (77%) would support a ban on such protests in the immediate vicinity of abortion clinics, including 81% of women and 72% of men.

Only 14% are opposed.

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