Let’s start with the fundamentals – only a very small minority of people in Britain oppose abortion completely. The principle that women should be able to have an abortion has overwhelming support. For example, YouGov here found only 6% of people wanted to ban abortion altogether, and in a more detailled survey here found 11% thought it should be illegal in most cases, 2% illegal in all cases. Angus Reid found only 4% of people opposed to abortion completely here.
However, if there is broad consensus on the principle of abortion being legal, public opinion is more divided on what restrictions there should be on abortion and what rules should govern its availability. Political discussion on this normally circulates around the 24-week limit that applies to most abortions. Polls tend to find people fairly evenly split between reducing this limit or keeping it as it is – looking again at the two most recent YouGov polls on the subject, the first in 2011 found 40% supporting the status quo or a longer limit, 37% supporting a lower limit. In the 2012 poll 39% supported the status quo or a longer limit, 37% supported a lower limit. The Angus Reid poll found 48% supported a reduction, 39% supported the status quo or a longer limit. The last ICM poll I can find asked specifically about a reduction to 20 weeks, and found 53% supported it, 30% were opposed. People are, essentially, pretty evenly split over the issue.
It is worth looking at the crossbreaks on abortion. Abortion is a free vote issue in the House of Commons and MPs are not whipped, but there are obvious patterns in voting behaviour, with Conservative MPs more likely to vote in favour of tighter time limits or further restrictions on abortion and Labour MPs more likely to vote against further restrictions (neither party is monolithic of course, there are many Labour MPs who vote against abortion or in favour of more restrictions and many Conservative MPs who vote against more restrictions. The pattern is there though).
There is NOT the same consistent pattern amongst the general public – for example, in the 2011 YouGov poll Conservative voters were slightly more likely to support a reduction in the abortion limit, in the 2012 poll the position had reversed and Labour voters were more likely to support a reduction. This is not a party partisan issue.
Also surprising are gender cross-breaks. The media coverage of the abortion issue often seems to make the assumption that women are more opposed to restrictions on abortion. Polls consistently show the opposite – that women are more likely than men to support a reduction on the abortion limit. In the 2011 YouGov poll 28% of men supported a reduction, 46% of women did. In the 2012 YouGov poll 24% of men supported a reduction, 49% of women did. In the Angus Reid poll 35% of men supported a reduction in the limit, 59% of women did. In the ICM poll 45% of men supported a reduction to 20 weeks, 59% of women did.
The idea that MPs speaking out for lower limits on abortion will alienate female voters therefore seems slightly odd, by espousing a viewpoint that is more popular amongst women than men they will drive women away? Hmm. Of course, it is possible that it is an issue that has more salience amongst women than men. It’s also possible that lots of media commentators saying a party is taking an stance unpopular with women will make a party seem unsympathetic to women anyway, regardless of the actual details of the issue – if it plays into an unsympathetic towards women narrative it can bolster that narrative almost regardless.