- In recent years, several opinion polls have asked for NI’s views on abortion
- The public is broadly in favour of abortion rights when there are health risks, or in cases involving rape or incest
- Support for abortion in general is less clear – with different polls showing different results
***This fact check was amended on 7 November 2022 to include additional information, specifically details about the NIO’s 2019 consultation on the expansion of abortion rights. The rating for the check is unchanged. The additional text is in the final paragraph of the first section (in bold), the section titled “Consultation”, and the penultimate paragraph in the “Conclusion” section (also in bold).***
On 24 October, DUP MP Carla Lockhart tweeted:
“Northern Ireland does not support abortion, it never has. It still doesn’t.”
This is inaccurate, based on several different opinion polls carried out in recent years.
Supporting abortion means supporting the right to choose to have an abortion. It is important to note that this isn’t a single-question issue, and that support for the right to choose can vary depending on the situation.
Although findings from different surveys do not all say the same thing, the results broadly indicate that the NI public supports the right to an abortion in several different circumstances.
However, the unconditional right to choose an abortion, whatever the circumstances, has not seen consistent support. Some surveys indicate that this has public backing, while others suggest it does not. The results may even depend on how the question is asked.
A public consultation also took place ahead in 2019 regarding the planned expansion of the right to choose in NI, and most responses opposed any change – however, consultations are not designed to measure overall public opinion.
Northern Ireland has never had a referendum on abortion. Gauging public opinion therefore relies on opinion polls – some of which are commissioned by organisations with a pre-existing view, one way or the other, and some of which are independent.
The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILTS) is an annual social-attitudes survey set up in 1998 by Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.
The most recent data on attitudes to abortion in the NILTS is from 2018, when people were asked if they agreed (meaning they said they agreed or strongly agreed) or disagreed (again, including those who said they strongly disagreed) that “it is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.”
- 71% of respondents agreed that it was a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion
- 16% disagreed
- 13% neither agreed nor disagreed or “didn’t know”.
In 2018, the NILTS also asked if people agreed with the statement that “there are no circumstances where having an abortion is justified.”
- 10% agreed with this statement
- 79% disagreed with it
- A further 10% neither agreed nor disagreed or didn’t know.
The 2016 NILTS asked detailed questions about abortion in NI, which indicated that public views are nuanced.
The percentage of people who answered that abortion should definitely or probably be legal in NI in the certain particular circumstances are:
- 78% in cases of rape or incest;
- 73% if the foetus has a serious abnormality and the baby may not survive beyond birth;
- 81% in cases of fatal abnormality;
- 83% if doctors say a woman will die if she continues the pregnancy;
- 76% if doctors think there is a serious threat to the woman’s physical or mental health if she continues with the pregnancy.
There were other circumstances, however, where fewer than half of people said that abortion should definitely or probably be legal. For example:
- 34% if a woman wants has become pregnant and does not want to have children;
- 25% if a woman is about to start a new job.
Ms Lockhart tagged a number of different pro-life organisations in her tweet, including Both Lives Matter which in 2019 commissioned the polling company Lucid Talk for opinion on Westminster’s decriminalisation of abortion in NI.
Lucid Talk refer to this on their website as a “client poll”, and state that they “worked with the client to endeavour to agree on poll questions that were, as far as possible, neutral and balanced, within the context of the clients project objectives.” One question asked was:
“Do you support the changes voted for at Westminster that will impose a new abortion regime in Northern Ireland?”
When asked this way, 52% of survey respondents said no, they did not support the changes imposed by Westminster; 39% said yes, they did support the changes, and 9% said that they did not know.
Lucid Talk said that all the polling questions “were proposed by the client”. It is worth noting the wording – i.e. questions about an “abortion regime” that the UK government will “impose” in NI.
In 2018, they commissioned a poll, conducted by Cognisense, which found that 80% of those surveyed said that “women should have the choice as to whether they have an abortion” when there is a risk to her health, 80% in cases of rape or incest and 73% in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
When asked, “Northern Ireland has been without devolved government since Jan 2017. Do you think that Westminster should now legislate for reform on Abortion?” 66% of respondents agreed.
In the same survey, 65% said that having an abortion should not be a crime. Note once again that wording is important, and that saying “having an abortion should not be a crime” is not precisely the same thing that women should be able to choose – a person might think that women shouldn’t be taken before the courts but also believe that providing abortions should be illegal.
- 60% of respondents “think the Government should be doing more to make abortion services available and accessible across NI”
- 68% “think the Government should be doing more to make people aware of what new services are available following the 2019 law change”
Ms Lockhart’s claim was in response to NI Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris’ announcement that the UK government will commission abortion services in Northern Ireland, due to inaction from the NI Department of Health.
This comes three years after Westminster legislated to decriminalise abortion through an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, and a regulatory framework for the provision of abortion services was put in place through the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No. 2) Regulations 2020.
In November 2019, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) undertook a public consultation to gather opinions from different people and organisations about proposals for expanded abortion services in Northern Ireland.
Of the submissions received by the NIO, 79% indicated general opposition to any expansion of local abortion services.
However, unlike opinion polls, public consultations are not measures of popular opinion, and there is no guarantee their findings represent the wider public’s views at all (as, for instance, a well-organised campaign can generate many responses to such an exercise, well above its proportional place in terms of public opinion). The NIO’s own response to this consultation states:
“It is important to note that views gathered through a public consultation are not intended to be representative of the opinions of the wider population; rather, they are the views of people who were aware of the consultation, have an interest in the subject matter, and chose to take part.”
The NIO received 21,244 responses to its consultation, of which 161 were from organisations (including 13 from the medical sector), around 7,000 were from individuals, and just over 14,000 were “affiliated to an individual campaign”.
Nevertheless, this is part of the picture when it comes to looking at NI’s views about abortion.
Looking at available polls and surveys in the round, a significant majority of people in Northern Ireland support abortion in a variety of circumstances, for example rape and incest, serious or fatal foetal abnormality and threat to a woman’s health.
The picture is less uniform when it comes to free and unfettered rights to have an abortion in any circumstances.
Both Lives Matter’s 2019 poll found that 52% of people were against the decriminalisation brought in by Westminster – however, 2018 polling from Amnesty found that 65% of people believe abortion should not be a crime.
Even the NILTS surveys show some inconsistent results. In 2016, only 34% of people agreed that abortion should probably or definitely be legal when a woman becomes pregnant but doesn’t want a child – but in 2018, NILTS found that 71% of respondents agreed that it was a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
Whether or not most people indicate support for the general right to choose an abortion may depend on how the question is worded.
The findings from the NIO public consultation, where 79% of responses opposed any expansion of services, should also be noted.
Taking all this into account, it is inaccurate to state that, “Northern Ireland does not support abortion, it never has. It still doesn’t.”