Abortion has been legal in Britain since the Abortion Act 1967, the result of a private member's bill brought by David Steel MP. It followed decades of campaigning by groups who were concerned about the ill health and loss of life that resulted from unsafe and illegal abortions. The 1967 Act allowed abortion under a number of specified circumstances in cases where the pregnancy had not exceeded its 28th week. The circumstances included the risk of the pregnancy to the woman's life, to her own physical or mental health, or that of her existing children. Abortion was also allowed if there was a significant risk that the child would be born with serious physical or mental disability.
The 1967 Act still governs abortions in England, Scotland and Wales. Changes were introduced in 1990 through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. In particular, the time limits in the original Act were reduced from 28 to 24 weeks, to reflect advances in medical science. The Act also clarified the circumstances under which abortion could be obtained at a later stage (abortions after 24 weeks were allowed if there is grave risk to the life of the woman, evidence of severe foetal abnormality or risk of grave physical and mental injury to the woman). In 2010, there were 17.5 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 resident in Britain, more than double the rate of 8.0 recorded in 1970.
Abortion remains a hugely controversial subject and, since 1967, members of Parliament have introduced a number of private member's bills to change the abortion law. Four resulted in substantive debate but all failed. In 2008, MPs voted on cutting the limit for the first time since 1990. MPs were given a free vote on the issue, with calls being made for a reduction to 12, 16, 20 or 22 weeks; MPs voted to retain the current legal limit of 24 weeks. In 2012, the Conservative Health Minister Jeremy Hunt reignited the debate by suggesting that he favoured a reduction in the legal time limit from 24 to 12 weeks; other ministers were quick to deny there were any plans to review the current legal limit although senior figures within the party, including David Cameron, suggested that they would favour a reduction in the legal limit.
The British Social Attitudes survey has asked a number of questions about abortion over the past 30 years. Here, we focus on two that represent the extremes at either end of the debate. Both focus on the acceptability or otherwise of abortion under particular circumstances, without broaching the issue of weekly limits. The first puts forward a situation that is clearly covered by the current Abortion Act - that a woman whose health is seriously endangered by her pregnancy be allowed to have an abortion. The second puts forward a more stretching scenario, one which is not in itself currently covered by the Abortion Act:
Do you think the law should allow an abortion when …
… the woman's health is seriously endangered by the pregnancy?
… the woman decides on her own she does not wish to have the child?
Responses to these questions are presented in Figure 1.6. They show almost unanimous support for a woman's right to have an abortion if her own health would be seriously endangered by going ahead with the pregnancy. Nine in ten people (90 per cent) agree with this view in 2012, barely changed from the 87 per cent who agreed in 1983. However, levels of support for abortion in the circumstances set out in the second question are lower, with just over six in ten (62 per cent) supporting and a third (34 per cent) opposing. However, this marks a considerable change since 1983; at that time 37 per cent thought the law should allow this while just over half (55 per cent) thought it should not. In other words, just over half of the public in 1983 opposed abortion being available if a woman does not want a child, while nearly two-thirds support this now.
We now turn to look at how the attitudes of particular groups have changed, focusing on views about the acceptability of abortion in those cases when the woman does not want the child. We start by looking at whether there are any generational differences on this issue (Figure 1.7). Compared with the earlier generational analyses, the picture here is less clear-cut. However, there are some generational differences in 2012, with more recent generations being more supportive of a woman's right to choose under these circumstances, and older generations, especially those born in the 1940s and 1930s being somewhat less supportive (with 49 and 56 per cent respectively supporting abortion, compared with 61 per cent of those born in the 1990s). But the differences are not huge, and the gaps between the most and least supportive groups have not changed much since 1983. It is also clear in the graph that most generations are more supportive now than they were in 1983; among the 1960s generation, for instance, support for abortion under those particular circumstances rose from 45 to 69 per cent. However, while support for abortion rose between 1983 and 1987 (and in some cases 1994) among all generations, it subsequently fell between 1994 and 2004 among older generations but continued to rise among those born during and after the 1950s. This distinction is intriguing and perhaps reflects the impact of the debates that foreshadowed the 1967 Abortion Act (something likely to have had a particular impact on the 1950s generation) as well the subsequent availability of legal abortion (for the 1960s generation onwards). These findings suggest that the changes in attitudes we have seen since 1983 cannot primarily be explained by generational change.
Not surprisingly, religious faith continues to be closely associated with attitudes to abortion. Catholics are the least accepting, with only 39 per cent supporting a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy if she wishes to, compared with 56 per cent of Anglicans. The non-religious are the most supportive of all (73 per cent). But acceptance of abortion has increased among all religious groups since 1983; among Anglicans, for instance, 34 per cent supported abortion in these circumstances in 1983, rising to 54 per cent by 1994 and standing at 56 per cent now. So increasing secularism cannot explain Britain's liberalisation on the subject of abortion.
Education is not as closely associated as other factors with attitudes to abortion. In general, the lowest level of support is found among those with no qualifications; beyond that the level of qualification makes little difference. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of graduates support abortion, compared with just over a half (53 per cent) of those with no qualifications. This broad pattern was also true in 1983; what is remarkable is that, since then, support for abortion among those with qualifications at GSCE level or below have barely changed, making them one of the few groups to have moved little in their views on this subject. For instance, among those with no qualifications at all, 49 per cent supported abortion in 1983, compared with 53 per cent now.
Overall, attitudes to abortion have become more supportive over the last three decades, although it is true to say that there was already widespread support in 1983 for abortion in cases where the continued pregnancy would endanger the woman's life. This is apparent among different generations, each of whom is now more supportive than they were in 1983. Increased support is also apparent among different religious groups, although religion remains linked to divergent views on the subject. On this issue then, changing attitudes cannot be explained by generation, religion or education; other factors underpin increasing liberalism on this matter.
Traditionally political votes on abortion are not subject to the party whip, allowing MPs to vote according to their own conscience. Our findings show that there are few party divisions on abortion, save a clear distinction between Liberal Democrat supporters and everyone else. In 2012, for instance, 82 per cent of Liberal Democrats support a woman's right to choose to have an abortion if she does not wish to have the child, compared with around six in ten Conservative and Labour Party supporters (57 and 61 per cent respectively) and 65 per cent of those who do not support any party.
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- BBC news, 17th February 2001, available at: news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/1175753.stm.
- It is possible that the expansion of higher education will affect the relationship between degree-level education and social values, especially if the main mechanism by which education affects attitudes is socialisation (rather than cognitive development). So as a wider cross-section of young people attend university, the distinctive nature of their values is diluted.
- Bases for Table 1.4 are as follows:
- Bases for Table 1.5 are as follows:
- In summary, there has been a considerable rise since 1983 in the proportion who identify with no political party whatsoever, up from eight per cent in 1983 to 21 per cent now. The proportion of Conservative identifiers has shrunk (from 39 to 27 per cent) and the proportion of Labour identifiers has remained broadly constant (33 and 36 per cent in 1983 and 2012 respectively). In 1983, 15 per cent of people identified with the Liberal/SDP Alliance, compared with six per cent in 2012 identifying with the Liberal Democrats. Further details can be found in the Politics chapter.
- Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:
- Speech by Margaret Thatcher to the Conservative Party Conference, 1987, 9th October, available at: www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106941.
- See, for example, the ILGA Europe review of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and intersex people in Europe, available at: www.ilga-europe.org/home/news/for_media/media_releases/not_la_vie_en_rose_the_most_comprehensive_overview_of_the_lgbti_people_rights_and_lives_in_europe_2013.
- Bases for Table 1.8 are as follows:
- The Guardian Datablog, 7th October 2012, available at: www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/may/24/abortion-statistics-england-wales.
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