Catholic Views on Abortion in Britain

By Francome, Colin | Conscience, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Catholic Views on Abortion in Britain


Francome, Colin, Conscience


THE CATHOLIC HIERARCHY HAS been the backbone of the anti-choice movement in Britain. However, an important question is whether it is just the hierarchy or whether the general Catholic population is in support of the hierarchy's position. In Britain, public opinion polls about abortion have asked about respondents' religion on at least five occasions: in 1965, 1979, 1982, 1988 and 2007. In 2007, the poll also asked about religion in a study of medical general practitioners (GPs).

RESULTS

The first survey was conducted by National Opinion Polls (NOP) in 1965 throughout Great Britain (not including Northern Ireland). In the sample of 1,997 interviews, 202 were Catholics. It asked: "Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in some cases or illegal in all cases." The results for Catholics showed that seven percent said it should be legal in all cases, 53 percent said that it should be legal in some cases and 36 percent said illegal in all cases. The other four percent did not know. The percentage of Catholics saying "illegal in all cases" was higher than for the population as a whole, where 24 percent thought it should be illegal in all cases.

In 1979, Gallup, in conjunction with the magazine Women's Own, asked: "Do you think that the choice as to whether or not to continue a pregnancy should or should not be left to the woman in consultation with her doctor." The sample size was 1,004, of which 131 were Catholics. In response, 72 percent of Catholics said that women should have the choice and 19 percent said that they should not; the other nine percent did not know. Overall, 76 percent of respondents said women should have the choice, with 14 percent opposing it. Catholics, therefore, were in line with the rest of the population, according to these results.

This survey asked an unusual question: "If legal abortions were made difficult to obtain, do you think that women would or would not seek other ways to terminate an unwanted pregnancy." Overall, almost four out of five (78 percent) said they would and seven percent said they would not. Results for Catholics were similar, with just over seven out often (72 percent) saying they would and eight percent said they would not; the others did not know. The survey also asked about contraceptive usage: "Since contraception was made free through family planning clinics and GPs in 1974, have you or your partner used the facility?" Overall 27 percent said they used the service--with 28 percent of Catholics stating they had used it.

In 1982, Pope John Paul II came to visit Britain. Just before his arrival, the Abortion Law Reform Association and Doctors for a Woman's Choice on Abortion commissioned a Gallup Poll. This asked several questions. One used the identical wording to the 1979 poll: "Do you think that the choice as to whether or not to continue a pregnancy should or should not be left to the woman in consultation with her doctor." In response, 80 percent said that it should and 15 percent said it should not, with the other five percent in the "don't know" category. Amongst Catholics, nearly seven out of ten (69 percent) said it should be left to the woman. In addition, more than 80 percent of Catholics were in favor of a woman being allowed to obtain a legal abortion for the sake of her health. This led to Isobel Walker, writing in the popular British national newspaper the Daily Mail (May 27, 1982) to state:

   The survey contains some bad news for
   the Pope who arrives in Britain
   tomorrow. Seven out of ten Roman
   Catholics support the woman's right to
   choose, in opposition to the official
   teachings of the Church. This represents
   a slight drop in support since 1979 but
   according to Dr. Francome it is not
   statistically significant. More than four
   out of five Catholics support abortion for
   the sake of the woman's health, and three
   out of five approve of abortion if the child
   is likely to be physically handicapped. … 

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