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Northern Ireland: Nearly 3/4 of public support abortion law change - new poll

Three quarters of the population in Northern Ireland support abortion law reform

Nearly three-quarters of people in Northern Ireland want abortion to be available in cases of rape and incest and when the foetus will not survive outside the womb, according to a new Amnesty International poll published today.

The results show overwhelming support from all religious backgrounds and political affiliations for a major overhaul of the region’s restrictive, 19th Century abortion laws. Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK where abortion is banned in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. This forces those who need to access abortion services to travel to England for the procedure, and means women are prosecuted for taking or sourcing abortion pills which are prescribed on the NHS in every other part of the UK.

The poll also shows an increase in support for access to abortion since a similar survey commissioned by Amnesty two years ago. In 2014, 69% of people in Northern Ireland supported access to abortion in cases of rape, a figure which has now increased to 72%. Meanwhile, 60% of respondents supported access to abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality - this has now grown to 67%.

Adrianne Peltz, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaigner, said:

“These poll findings demonstrate an overwhelming demand for change to Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws.

“This is not a small margin of support for women’s access to abortion, it’s a definitive landslide. Northern Ireland has changed. 

“People who think women should be denied abortions are in a small and ever-decreasing minority. Only one in six people agree with the status quo for abortion laws.

“Not only do a huge majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see abortion made available to women and girls in the tragic circumstances of rape, incest or fatal foetal diagnosis, but they also want to see abortion decriminalised for all women.

“If the law was changed in line with the overwhelming wishes of the public, we would no longer force women, who have been raped or been given a fatal diagnosis for their pregnancy, onto planes to England and away from their families and medical carers.

“It would also mean that we would no longer see women hauled before the courts for taking or sourcing abortion pills which are prescribed on the NHS in every other part of the UK.

“Politicians from all parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly should study these poll findings in great detail. What they will find is that voters from all parties – including those who have previously blocked change – want to see a radical overhaul of our inhumane abortion laws.”

The high levels of support for reform of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws is largely consistent across all ages ranges, between women and men, across regions of Northern Ireland and whether people are from a Catholic or Protestant community background. For instance, 68% people from a Catholic background support access to abortion in cases of rape or incest, with just 17% disagreeing.  Among respondents from a Protestant background, the figures were 72% supporting increased abortion access with just 16% disagreeing.

There was also high support for abortion law reform among voters for all Northern Ireland’s main political parties, including for two political parties which have traditionally been opposed to change. For instance, in cases of rape or incest, 73% of DUP voters support access to abortion, with just 17% opposed. Among SDLP voters, 69% support access to abortion in such circumstances, with a similar 17% opposed to reform.

The polling figures are published as Ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive are considering whether or not to introduce changes to the law to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. Minister of Justice Claire Sugden and Minister of Health Michelle O’Neill received a report last week from an inter-departmental working group on the issue, although its recommendations have not yet been made public.

Statistics

  • 72% of people think abortion should be available if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest; only 15% are opposed
  • 67% of people think abortion should be available in cases of fatal foetal abnormality; just 17% are opposed
  • 58% of people think abortion should be decriminalised so there would be no criminal penalty for women who have abortions in Northern Ireland; 22% are opposed to this change
  • 59% of people think abortion should be decriminalised so there would be no criminal penalty for doctors and medical staff who assist women to have abortions in Northern Ireland; 21% are opposed to this change
  • 68% of people think the fact that in most cases abortion is classified as a crime in Northern Ireland adds to the distress of women seeking an abortion; 14% disagreed
  • 75% of people think the fact that women from Northern Ireland who are seeking a lawful abortion must travel to England adds to their distress; 11% disagreed.
  • 71% of people agreed that that having to travel to England for a lawful abortion has a disproportionately negative impact on women with low income; 11% disagreed.

Background

In November 2015, Northern Ireland’s High Court found that the region’s restrictive abortion laws breach the European Convention on Human Rights in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and where the pregnancy resulted from sexual assault. The Northern Ireland Executive has appealed the judgment and a decision from the Court of Appeal is now pending.

In April 2016, a 21-year-old Northern Ireland woman was given a three-month suspended prison sentence after being found guilty of taking abortion pills to end her pregnancy. The court was told that the woman, aged 19 at the time of the offence, could not afford to travel to England to have a lawful abortion. The criminal penalty for having or assisting a woman to have an unlawful abortion in Northern Ireland is up to life in prison.

Methodology

The polling was carried out in the week commencing September 15 2016 by Millward Brown Ulster, using face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,000 adults aged 16+, in multiple urban and rural locations across Northern Ireland. 

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Downloads
Millward Brown Ulster report of the public opinion research (MS Powerpoint - 20 pages)