Polling on abortion

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.


Full tables for the YouGov/Sunday Times poll are now up here, covering Miliband’s leadership, Scottish independence, abortion, alcohol and shoplifting.

Last night I pondered whether the reason the polls were still close between Labour and the Conservatives was a lasting effect of the veto, or a reflection of Labour’s current troubles. The regular trackers in the YouGov poll would suggest the latter – government approval and David Cameron’s approval ratings are both falling back towards their pre-veto levels, government approval is back down to minus 26, David Cameron’s approval rating is back down to minus 10. In contrast, Ed Miliband’s figures get ever worse, dropping to minus 49 (from minus 46 a week ago). Amongst Labour’s own supporters only 46% think he is doing well, compared to 49% who think he is doing badly.

Asked if Miliband had the right policies to be Prime Minister and whether he looked or sounded like a Prime Minister, only 7% thought he both had the policies and the look/sound to be PM. 43% thought he had neither (including, as one would expect, most Tories). The interesting bit is the rest, only 4% thought he looked like a PM but didn’t have the right policies, 27% thought he had the right policies, but didn’t look or sound like a PM. Amongst Labour’s own supporters only 16% thought Miliband had the right policies and the right look/sound, 5% of Labour supporters thought he had the right look/sound but the wrong policies, 59% of Labour supporters thought he had the right policies but didn’t look or sound like a possible Prime Minister.

For all the discussion of Labour’s policy stance on the economy (though in the longer term, that will be extremely important too), this appears to be the ultimate problem with Ed Miliband – people don’t think he looks the part of Prime Minister. It is not, as John Humphrey’s suggested, anything as crude as Ed Miliband being “too ugly” to be Prime Minister (YouGov asked and only 10% agreed), but a general image. It backs up earllier findings like that in December when, despite Labour having been ahead in the polls for a year, only 17% of people and only 37% of Labour’s own supporters thought it likely that Ed Miliband would ever be Prime Minister. This is a real problem for Miliband – policies can be changed, it is extremely difficult to change the public’s perception of a leader once it has settled. Miliband’s ratings did get a good hike after hackgate last year, but it was purely temporary, Labour need to get something like that which sticks.

The rest of the poll covered Scottish independence (which I’ll do a seperate post on later),
attitudes towards alcohol pricing, lobbying, shoplifting and abortion.

On Alcohol pricing, people are pretty evenly split over cut-price promotions on alcohol – 47% think they are a good thing, 42% a bad thing. 53% oppose a minimum price on alcohol, 47% support it, although largely at at quite low levels. 30% would support a minimum pricing at the suggested 45p a unit or less (the equivalent of about £1 for a pint of beer), 17% would support a higher minimum price.

On shoplifting, 16% of people admitted that they had shoplifted at some point in their lives. 50% of people saw it as a less serious type of theft than burgulary or mugging, compared to 45% who thought it was about the same. Asked what the appropriate punishment should be for a first time shoplifter, 23% thought they should be given a caution, 30% a fine, 30% community service, 11% a jail sentence.

Finally YouGov asked about the time limit for abortion. 5% of people supported a higher limit, 34% supported the status quo of a 24 week limit, 37% supported reducing the time limit and 6% supported a total ban on abortions. As you often find on abortion questions, women were more likely than men to support a reduction in the time limit for abortion (49% of women supported a tighter limit, compared to 24% of men.)


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.


The full tables for the YouGov/Sunday Times poll are here, no tables yet for ICM, but the News of the World report is here.

As with Populus’s poll in the week, the individual measures announced in the budget were broadly positive received. 68% told YouGov they supported the increase in tax on “large environmentally unfriendly family cars”, 63% supported requiring supermarkets to charge for plastic bags, 77% supporting equiring people on incapacity benefit to attend work focused interviews. A slighlt plurality of people opposed the increase in alcohol duties – 48% to 46% – but this was hardly overwhelmingly opposition.

Despite that, opinion towards the government’s general handling of the economy looked very low – 86% though inflation was higher than the government said, 78% said the government wastes large amounts of money, 66% agreed the government spent too much in good economic times. All the measures of economic optimism were low. 47% agreed Alistair Darling was not up to the job, with only 22% disagreeing and the poll found Cameron & Osbourne had a significant lead over Brown & Darling as the team people trust more to help their standard of living – 33% to 21%. ICM’s poll also found a significant Tory lead on the economy – they were most trusted by 34% compared to 28% for the Tories. A second ICM survey in the Sunday Telegraph found 31% thouht the budget would make things worse, only 7% thought it would improve matters.

It’s an apparent contradiction – the individual measures in the budget are popular, but it looks as though it has really hit their popularity. Off the top of my head I can think of two explanations – it’s possible that people support what Alistair Darling has done given the circumstances he faces, but that the fact the government have found themselves in such circumstances has undermined their previous confidence in Brown’s handling of the economy. Alternatively it could just be that general bad economic tidings, brought home to them by the budget, have made them less positively disposed to the government regardless of whether they actually attribute any blame to them.

On other political trackers Brown’s approval ratings with YouGov slip ever lower – his net score is down to minus 26 from minus 21 last month. David Cameron’s remains unchanged on plus 14. Nick Clegg’s rating was minus 6, but that’s still with 35% don’t knows. In the ICM poll Cameron had a lead of 6 points over Brown on best Prime Minister.

As usual the Sunday Times asked a grab bag of questions of lots of other issues. On Lord Goldsmith’s proposals for Britishness 51% of people supported the idea of citizenship ceremonies, for school leavers… but only if they excluded the suggested oath of allegiance to the monarch, supported by only 15%.

Only 29% of respondents supported Heathrow expansion. 39% thought expansion should be elsewhere, either in East London or in regional airports. 18% were opposed to airport expansion entirely.

Finally YouGov asked about abortion law. 35% supported the status quo, 48% supported a reduction in the legal time limit to 20 weeks and 8% supported a total ban on abortion.


Last night I reported YouGov’s findings on abortion and the use of embryos for research – today I’ll cover the rest of the poll, which examined stem-cell research, cloning, euthanasia and “designer babies”.

As you might have noticed, the stem cell question on the Telegraph’s table doesn’t make sense – the use of stem cell research in what “way” exactly? The actual YouGov question refered to scientists using cloned embryos as a source of stem cells to treat diseases such as Alzheimers, diabetes and heart disease, and asked respondents when, if ever, this was acceptable. A large majority (80%) of respondents did support scientists using stem cells from cloned embryos in some circumstances, but the majority of people qualified their support to some extent. 20% supported the use of stem cells from clones for only life threatening illnesses, a further 25% supported it for all serious illness, while another 27% supported it for all medical purposes, but not cosmetic ones. Only 7% would support the use of embryonic stem cells for cosmetic purposes.

Asked about cloning for reproductive purposes the survey suggested found a high level of opposition. 60% of people thought that reproductive cloning should be illegal for at least the foreseeable future, half of them thought it should be illegal forever. 20% thought it should be legal only for couples with infertility problems, with only 10% of respondents thinking it should be legal in general. The question specifically asked about people’s attitudes to cloning, “assuming the cloning of babies was proved safe for both the baby and the woman carrying it,” so in theory this should represent opposition above and beyond what fears respondents may have about the safety of cloning.

YouGov went on to ask about whether people felt well enough informed to make decisions about things like stem cell research and cloning: 60% of respondents said they did not. So, while respondents were mainly opposed to reproductive cloning and broadly supportive, although with caveats, towards the use of stem cells from cloned embryos, most also thought that they didn’t have enough knowledge of the subject to make informed decisions.

Moving on, the YouGov survey showed strong support for euthanasia. Asked if they thought “that people who are terminally ill should have the right to decide when they want to die and to ask for medical assistance to help them die if they are unable to end their own lives” 87% said yes, with only 6% opposed. Asked if people should be able to assist the suicides of close relatives without fear of prosecution, 67% said yes.

YouGov then asked about a number of potential negative effects were euthanasia to be legalised. Despite the previous apparant support for euthanasia, 51% of respondents thought that elderly people would feel pressured to seek euthanasia, 47% of respondents thougth it would lead to a significant number of murders disguised as euthanasia and 21% thought it would lead to worse levels of care for the terminally ill. Only 14% thought there would be no negative effects. Personally I’d have liked to see a follow up question to see if people thought the desirability of allowing people the right to seek euthanasia outweighed these negative effects or not, but there goes.

On a related subject YouGov also asked respondents if there was a “significant moral difference” between doctors ended the life of a patient in a permanent coma by withdrawing nutrition or by giving them a fatal dose of morphine (the wording of the question was carefully but so that both instances were presented as “hastening the patient’s death”). 37% of patients thought there was a moral difference, 54% thought there was no significant difference.

Finally YouGov asked about “designer babies” – i.e. modifying or screening the genetic make-up of babies before they are born in order to select specific characteristics. Respondents attitudes followed a strong pattern in these questions – about 20% of people were steadfastly opposed to any sort of designer babies, while most other respondents were in favour of genetic screening or modifications in order to prevent serious genetic disorders. Only a tiny proportion (2%) of respondents thought that genetic screening should be allowed for purposes like making children more intelligent or increasing their sporting prowess.

So far in the UK permission has been granted for at least one “designer baby” in order to provide a bone marrow match for a seriously ill sibling (although the parents have not yet managed to have another baby), and it has been suggested that selection by gender should be allowed in IVF treatment. YouGov asked about both these situations. While a majority (58%) of people supported “designer babies” to provide donors to save the life of siblings, there was very strong opposition to screening embryos by gender; 77% were opposed, with only 14% in favour.

So, as the Telegraph’s editorial yesterday said, people’s opinions on medical ethics are a bit, well, woolly. People support euthanasia, despite agreeing it might have horrible consequences. They support abortion, but would like to see it tightened up in some way. They dislike cloning, apart from for stem cells to treat illnesses, and don’t mind experimentation on embryos for medical purposes, as long as they are only “spare embryos” left over from IVF treatment.