Abortion Polling

Over on Bloggerheads Tim Ireland dismisses a poll on Abortion quoted during yesterdays Parliamentary debate as “being conducted by the Christian Institute [so] it’s on him if the poll turns out to have been conducted on the back of a hymn sheet in a church car park.”

The tables for the poll are here, and while it was commissioned by the Christian Institute, it was carried out by ComRes, a proper polling company using proper a quasi-random phone sample.

Where the problems begin is with the questions themselves. They didn’t ask people straight about what they thought the time limit for abortion should be, they first primed them with an argument in favour of reducing it. Respondents were told that in other European countries the limit was 12 weeks, and then asked their opinion. 58% thought the time limit should be reduced, with 24% of women taking the hint and picking 12 weeks. In a second question respondents were told that in one neonatal unit 5 out of 7 babies born at 22 weeks survived. 60% then thought the time limit should be reduced from 24 weeks.

Now, questions like this do have legitimate uses in message testing or deliberative polling to see how well arguments work to change opinions. If they are presented in the correct way, they are perfectly good questions – for example, the Christian Institute published the first question as being “whether they thought the UK should lower its abortion time limit in light of the fact that in most other EU countries the limit is 12 weeks or lower“, which is exactly what was asked.

What the questions don’t show is that X percentage of people want to see the time limit for abortion reduced, anymore than a question prefaced with a pro-choice argument would show people opposed a reduction. The best way to ask a survey question is to give the minimal amount of information, since for every bit of background information you provide you risk skewing the answer or, by making them better informed than other people, making your sample unrepresentative.

The cynical old souls reading this will jump to the conclusion that clients go around deliberately asking pollsters for skewed polls that give them the answers they want. In my experience it doesn’t actually work like that. Most common is that clients think that other polls are skewed, because the public don’t understand, and if they were aware of this vital bit of information they would be much better informed and the answers so much more reflective of what they really think. Then we have to explain that actually, polls are supposed to measure public opinion as it is, not how it we would like it to be if they were better informed. It normally isn’t an attempt to mislead, it’s often just misunderstanding of what fair question wording is.

Of course, even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, so just because these questions can’t be taken to show it, doesn’t mean a majority of people don’t support a shorter time limit on abortion. Polls with less skewed wording also show support for a reduction. A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times two months ago asked if people supported the status quo, or the 20 week amendment. 48% supported 20 weeks compared to 35% supporting 24% weeks, 8% wanted it banned altogether (other options weren’t offered, so no doubt some people would have gone for 22 weeks if they could). A MORI poll for the Observer in 2006 found 33% thought the current limit was right, 4% wanted a longer limit, 42% a tighter limit and 10% a total ban.

36 Responses to “Abortion Polling”

  1. My apologies for not finding it sooner. The soundbites from the CI press release were heard far more often than the source was named. This was largely due to some Christians wanting to hide behind bushes during their ‘contribution’ to the debate.

    Having seen the data I am sure that ComRes acted in good faith (no pun intended) but contend that the data has been misrepresented in the House at least once:

  2. I agree that pollsters should as far as they can stay out of the business of informing the voters – though it’s quite hard to ignore the fact that polls themselves can influence people.

    One of the Brandindex questions is “how brand aware do you consider yourself to be, on a scale of 1 to 10?”. I like that question, it comes at the end, and it is probably quite useful for their clients to know how “well-informed” (if I can suggest an equivalence) the people are about the issues they’ve just opined on.

    I’m not suggesting questions like that on wider political issues, but i do think it’s legitimate in a case where empirical, technical facts are so important.

  3. I agree with your last paragraph john and think it has great relevance to the Abortion Debate, and the questions posed in Polls on the subject.

    The debate in Parliament last night was fascinating & instructive to watch-but ,it seems to me almost totally without reference to the key issue.

    Only two MP’s mentioned it whilst I was watching-a Lib Dem Doctor, and Nadine Dorris, a Conservative Nurse.

    Whilst trying to garner support for the rights of the baby ( which were significantly less discussed than the rights of the mother) they both said that “viability” was not a reasonable criteria with which to decide the time limit.They proposed “sentience”-a very uncomfortable topic which was avoided by & large in the House.

    If the public at large had access to the sort of medical information provided -albeit briefly during that debate-by those two MPs, then Pollsters could ask much more relevant questions on the topic, and resondents would give more informed responses.

    Simply asking people which of a series of week numbers they would prefer without reference to any medical data on the sentience of the baby to be destroyed ,seems totally without merit.

  4. Colin –
    Without getting into the issue itself (I’m a bit of a “don’t know” at present), aren’t there more strands to this than simply the medical issues?

    The other countries who have a 12 week limit or less must be basing their policy on social issues rather than medical data (presumably the pro-12 weekers last night were accepting that no baby can survive after twelve weeks), and those social issues are less reliant on technical facts than ours.

    The most pertinent points for me were those to do with a lack of education, a lack of effective contraceptive use, and a prevailing atmosphere that encourages women not to worry too much about an unwanted pregnancy if they miss five periods after having un-protected sex. All essentially social issues, rather than medical ones.

    Social/theological argument using science as evidence is an interesting area – I believe they should be considered in conjunction with each other rather than juxtaposed, but it is imperative that data isn’t twisted to suit an argument.

  5. Of course the reality is even though the public do answer yes to polls asking “do you want the limit to be reduced to 20 weeks”, with only slightly smaller majorities than the dodgy Comres poll, the questioning is hopelessly simplistic.

    My point is rather the same as the last posters but in reverse. Colin states that if only people were told about ‘sentience’ (not sure how much this means to most people), they would be better informed.

    Yet you can apply this the other way: only 3,000 people a year have an abortion between 20 and 24 weeks. It is not easy to get access to, and a decision not taking likely. Perhaps the mother is still a child. Perhaps she has learned of medical difficulties likely with the birth. In principle, most people will say ‘the closer to term, the worse it is to abort’. So the average Joe or Josephine will support a measure that they perceive as making people abort earlier in term. But that’s not really the case.

    Those being asked generally don’t know anything about the people having late abortions. All the know is that ‘hmm yes, 24-weeks is quite late in pregnancy, let’s reduce that’. That is the ONLY information they have. No case histories, nothing, just the conceptual model of a 24-week old foetus/pregnant woman.

    MPs have the access to proper data, including the people that would be affected, and are capable of making the decision based on it.

  6. John-yes I am in total agreement with you.

    The question which kept on occurring to me was -why do the mothers of these late aborted babies wait so long anyway? ( I discount the cases of severe medical problems for either mother or baby)-and that as you say is part of a severe & wider social problem in this country.

  7. mikkimoose:-

    “…. ’sentience’ (not sure how much this means to most people),”

    My point entirely.
    It’s not a difficult concept to explain-and one of it’s key features-the ability to feel pain & distress-is familiar to all of us.

  8. if children are being born at 20 weeks an still living their after then the limet has to come down to 20 weeks or less but if the majority of childern being born at 20 weeks are dieing soon after then we must not lower the limet.

  9. I think Labour MPs are probably slightly out of step with public opinion in the sense that given the three choices on offer most members of the public probably would have gone for the middle option (22 weeks) rather than 24 or 20.

  10. The insistence on using “viability” outside the womb as the sole the criterion lacks logic.

    Newborn babies are not viable without support.
    Premature babies are given support.

    The viability “test” demands of healthy babies in the womb, whose mothers choose late abortion, that they become viable outside the womb at a date determined by reference to the ability of naturally premature babies -on average-to survive.

    But the sentience of these babies who are perfectly healthy within the womb, is discounted -worse it is not even considered.

    In my opinion sentience should be the main criterion.
    Yes that will demand much data & guidance from the medical profession.
    Yes that may well reduce the term after which abortion becomes unlawfull ( subject of course to medical need).

    But it would stop the lawfull killing of sentient unborn babies-and just might lead to a different attitude to abortion on demand for social reasons.

    There was consensus in the Parliamentary Debate that UK’s increasing levels of abortion should ideally be brought down.

    john tt rightly ascribes the reasons for UK’s abortion record to social & educational factors.A new criterion based on the science of foetal sentience, and an appropriate public education programme could help address those factors.

  11. I’m not religious but on the Andrew Neil program with IDS and Charlie Faulkener they were saying the European limit is usually 12 weeks.

    20 weeks sounds like enough time to decide whether you can go through with it or not.
    I hate this “right to choose” phrase – sounds like it’s derived in a loony left Town Hall or an HR/Outreach officers department.

  12. This debate was one of the few full parliamentary debates I’ve ever watched and I found it really interesting. I was quite suprised to find my views were xhanged by it, quite a lot.

    I tend to agree with Colin about sentience being the fundamental point. As Anne Widdecome (sp?) said; it may not be viable outside the womb but it’s still viable inside the womb where it’s supposed to be.

    I think the argument for using viability is that even if it is sentient until that critical point it must be wholly dependent on its mother. If she chooses not to give it the resources it needs (i.e. a womb) then what right do any of us have to make her. We wouldn’t force am mother to donate a kidney or other organ to her child.

    Finally, one more point if I may, if we are going to use viability as the gauge shouldn’t it be set at the time when there is ANY possibility of it surviving? If I only had 5 or 10% chance of surviving an operation I’d expect doctors to still consider me viable and I’d be jolly upset if they didn’t.

    It’s a very difficult subject and I can see the sense in what most of the MPs said on all sides. I’m kind of glad that it was them that had to decide and not me.

  13. This is not a matter for anyone to decide – i am most definately NOT religious in any form whatsoever, but consider any abortion at any time unless on medical grounds – a crime against human kind !!

    It should be made illegal and certainly not funded by the NHS.

  14. The population of the western world is in fast decline to dangerous levels – abortion just adds to the problem – promoting larger families should be something to be looked at to boost the western worlds flagging numbers.

  15. What a lot of people don’t like, it seems to me, is the idea that abortion should just be a kind of casual lifestyle choice. I’m not religious at all but I tend to agree with that point of view.

  16. Joe James,
    I remember the “right to choose” being a major plank of Thatcherism – particularly in defence of private health and education. I think it was called “freedom of choice”, but you’ve thrown up an aspect that I find interesting.

    You get far less social difficulty (and far fewer unwanted pregnancies) in countries that enjoy less freedom than ours. Our freedom comes at a cost – respect for our elders has diminished since the days when we were less constrained, for instance. On abortion limits, it must be very difficult for an MP, charged with trying not to interfere too much with people’s personal freedom, to come to a decision which restricts the freedom to choose.

    Do we know to what extent women struggle before making that terrible decision? I don’t , but I do think we need to talk much more about our freedom and the potential for it to be abused.

  17. What interesting comments these have been.

    john tt-I agree with the thrust of your thoughts about freedom-but feel that “responsibility” which should go hand in hand with it, is so often the missing element in our “have it all-have it now” society.

    I disagree entirely with Mike’s proposal to increase “Western” populations.There are more people on the planet than it’s resources ( and wild habitats & species ) can sustain.
    The declining western populations will be suplemented by waves of global migration emanating from the burgeoning populations of Asia & Africa.This is but a part of the massive global economic & social changes which will occurr in the decades ahead.

  18. Colin – I agree re “responsibility”, but I think it shows up the difference between you and me.

    A conservative government will tend towards allowing personal freedom to flourish, on the understanding that the individual will be “responsible” and not abuse the freedom from “the state”.

    (Unfortunately, Thatcher’s “trickle-down, the poor benefit from the proceeds of growth” ideas, without that sense of responsibility, led to such proceeds not trickling down, and greed replaced a sense of responsibility)

    in contrast, a labour government will tend towards allowing “the state” to flourish, and is reliant on the understanding that the individual will not abuse the safety that “the state” provides.

    (Unfortunately, far too many individuals become reliant on the state and allow their lives to be subject to the constraints of the state)

    I support labour because I believe it’s approach causes ever so slightly less harm.

    In terms of the abortion debate, a high limit relies on women being more responsible (so we don’t ask doctors to kill unborn babies), and a low one relies on young women being provided with effective contraception and sex education (so we don’t let ignorance and fear lead to back-street abortions rising)

    My angle on this issue is of course clouded by the notion that the baby/foetus develops its own rights at some point (that’s why I’m still a “don’t know”.)

  19. I can’t believe I put “it’s” instead of “its”!

  20. john

    Your perception of the “difference between us” is interesting.
    You put the Labour/ Conservative positions in too stark a framework for my taste-and things have moved on in so many ways since Thatcher.
    Still- I don’t depart from your premise over much, and indeed am placed on the opposite bank of the “blue”-if not too “clear” water between us.

    Re Abortions-my position is not “clouded” by the notion of the (sentient) Babies rights-it is substantially shaped by them.
    Indeed the Parliamentary debate changed my mind quite a bit-and two speeches in particular moved me considerably.

    I hope that a Conservative administration will not wait another twenty years before returning to this topic.

  21. Without that shaping your judgement, you would be adopting a position that chimed more with the left than the right (in terms of individual freedom versus state regulation.)

    I know nothing’s as simple as I’m making out, but if the Conservatives do return to this with an eye to lowering the limit, they should do so because of analysis like yours, and not because of an (inconsistent) idea that the state knows best.

    I should have said “Redwood’s idea”, because he said more or less the same last summer. If Cameron gets in, I’d be delighted if the voluntary sector takes off and charitable donations went through the roof; that would prove we have moved on.

  22. john-

    re your first para-Left & Right politics wouldn’t enter into my thinking at all. I would wish to see :-

    *An end to the legal administration of painfull killing of sentient babies in the womb.
    – requiring-medical opinion on the point of sentience being reached-I have my own crude idea but want it tested by the science.
    *A reduction in the number of abortions in UK-insofar as they result from social choices rather than medical imperatives.
    -requiring-education, and a massive effort to reduce the social problems surrounding “family” in UK.
    -I would be prepared to consider compulsory monitoring of use of contraceptive methods for individuals who ask for more than n abortions for social reasons.
    *At all times the retention of abortion as an option where medical imperative for the child or mother requires it.I would want Doctors rather than politicians to define the qualifying circumstances.

    That’s pretty crude I know-but it’s the best I can do until we have an informed debate.

    I absolutely agree with your last sentence.Indeed the work of IDS & my perception that Cameron will implement his ideas is probably the key hope I have for a future under his premiership.

  23. All OK with me apart from :

    “cmpulsory monitoring of use of contraceptive methods”

    Consider it by all means, but reject it please!

    Just how close would the monitoring be?
    What are the most common contraceptives to fail? Probably condoms or Caps (through failing to use one properly). CCTV monitoring?
    Compulsory pill or coil? Is that a tenable position for the Conservative party? If Labour introduced that level of state interferrence, I’d turn blue the next day!
    How many people would be affected (I suspect very few) and for how long would they be monitored?

    One of the aspects of the debate was reference to the problem of the unintended consequences – ie we don’t want back-street abortions or self-mutilation to increase. An extreme solution that led to that would be even worse than a system that allows 200k abortions to take place each year.

  24. Perhaps free, anonymous provision of testing kits would be better?

  25. john-I understand the “Vera Drake” syndrome, and share the concern.

    I knew I should have stuck to broad principles !-I don’t have an answer to your questions about monitoring use of contraceptives.

    OK-& maybe we’re back to the clear blue water here again-but how about this objective:-

    As part of the effort to reduces UKs level of abortions carried out for purely social reasons, a means will be sought of impressing on individuals who request repeated abortions, their responsibility to support the reduction of such abortions.

    Its about re-inforcing “responsibility”…..somehow!

  26. Exactly. Similarly, to get back to the wider/deeper question, a means must be found of impressing on those who take advantage of “state provisions”, their responsibility to reduce their reliance on such provision.

    Personally, i think it’s more achievable to take that approach than it is to encourage wealthy individuals to “give” more, in return for lowering taxes and shrinking the state.

  27. RE your first para-state provisions of financial support can be linked to a variety of entitlement criteria. These can have “need to demonstrate responsibility” built in.The support can be reduced or even withdrawn if these criteria are not met.

    But how do you apply this methodology to the abuse of the provision of abortion by the State?-without invoking cries of disent about state interference with private life.

    I think the bigger picture is the attack which must be mounted on the failure of the family unit to instil “responsibility”. IDS showcased some fantastic Charitable organisations working in this field at the Tory Conference. They are out there & they are axchieving results.But they are down on the sink estates in the middle of it all-not sat in offices in Whitehall.They need to be trusted & supported.

  28. We do have to be very careful about interpreting polling questions.
    When I was a pollster in the late 80s / early 90s I remember two questions about the age of homosexual consent:
    Do you think it should be the same as heterosexual consent? Yes 70%
    Do you think it should be reduced from 21/18 to 16?
    No 70%.
    To say no to the first would sound like being unfair and unequal, to say yes to the second would sound like a change to ‘expose’ younger people.

    Incidentally, the ’12 week in other European countries’ point is itself incomplete and partial information. I understand that in those countries there may be many loopholes which allow later termination, and the difference with our current law is not as great as it sounds.

  29. just to go off the wall a little but in C&N the conservatives are leading and on course to win by a four figure majority.



    CON 20539 49.49%
    LAB 12679 30.55%
    LD 6040 14.55%
    OTH 2240 5.41%

    CON MAJ: 7860 (18.94%)



  32. Colin – you have to start from the premise that women’s preferred method of not having a baby is not late abortion. Repeated late abortions are not abuses of the state in the same way that benefit dependancy can be.

    So the sense of responsibility is achieved through education and free access to contraception and pregnancy tests (plus encouraging the sort of family support / values that allow scared young women to come forward early and do a pregnancy test.

    The state should provide this in my view, and use the voluntary sector as a resource, but not as a replacement for a public-funded system with political accountability. It does less harm than a privatised system would.

    Family disintegration is a huge issue – I think I’m on the same page as you there.

    Apologies for wandering from the polling questions.

  33. Chris C –
    The EDP (not flash, just fluffy) party was always going to be squeezed in C & N – just wait for Henley when they’ll be back up there at 1%!

  34. Who actually believes abortions are used as late contraception? I dont. If they are then people need to be introduced to the pill and the morning after pill. That amount of pain and problems, no way…

  35. John-had better leave the debate now I think.
    Appreciate your thoughts & comments.

  36. Likewise!