Some issues spell trouble for a pollster. The most dangerous are abortion, euthanasia, foxhunting and tobacco. We’ve worked for one side or the other on all of these issues, and have learned the unfortunate truth that, irrespective of neutrality, once you’ve polled for one side you’re unlikely to get a commission from the other lot.
Sometimes the reaction is more aggressive, as I discovered when a ComRes poll was published in 2009, revealing that most of the public thought it should be illegal to help end the life of someone who’s suicidal.
At the time, we had been shortlisted for ‘Best Agency’ by Research magazine – the most prestigious award in the market research industry – so I was a bit alarmed at first to receive a letter from Labour peer Lord Joffe, possibly frustrated that his attempts to change the law on assisted suicide had failed yet again, expressing unhappiness with the wording of a question.
I’m always happy to receive constructive criticism, but felt it was a touch excessive of him to suggest in his letter that he might try and lobby the Market Research Society not to give us the award (happily, it wasn’t theirs to give).
Among these ‘Marmite’ issues, abortion is the focus of attention in Westminster, with Nadine Dorries MP and Frank Field MP promoting an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill that would require GPs to ensure that women considering abortion have access to ‘proper advice, information and counselling’.
The bill also seeks to prevent abortion providers who, it is argued, have a vested financial interest in the abortion proceeding, from being the source of that information and advice.
To many outside the debate, this seems a rather benign amendment; indeed, there’s said to be considerable sympathy within Parliament towards it. Yet its detractors fear it will mark the start of a longer-term retreat on the issue, and who knows where that could lead?
One thing is clear: the status quo is untenable in anything but the short term. One major cause of concern for the pro-choice lobby is that the public is consistently less liberal on abortion than the current law reflects. Now this is not unique to abortion. After all, Parliament is happy not to concede on capital punishment, for which public support still stands at around 50 per cent.
But, unlike capital punishment, for which there’s no mass lobby calling for change, the mood among the public suggests that holding back abortion law reform will fail. There is plenty of evidence for this.
Surveys consistently show the public to be queasy about the large number of abortions each year (close to 200,000 across Great Britain). In 2008, when Parliament last looked at the upper limit for abortion, 67 per cent of the public agreed that if the limit was not reduced, then Parliament “should tighten up the rules on early abortion to discourage so many from taking place each year”. This is in line with many other studies: a 2005 poll found that 29 per cent were content with the current number of abortions that take place each year. The numbers argument is a powerful one that plays strongly with the public.
Secondly, polls show a significant and consistent variance between the views of men and women, and people are often surprised to learn that women are consistently more pro-life than men. In 2005, 56 per cent of women and 44 per cent of men said the current 24-week limit “should be lowered significantly”, and a YouGov poll that year also found 36 per cent of men but only 19 per cent of women supported an upper limit of 24 weeks or later.
Similarly, in 2008, 55 per cent of women and 47 per cent of men said MPs were wrong to vote against a reduction in the upper limit. This pattern of stronger female caution over abortion is mirrored across just about every aspect of the debate.
Given this gender variance, it’s ironic that the most powerful campaign weapon in the pro-choice lobby’s armoury is that abortion is “a woman’s right to choose”. In our 2005 study, people were asked whether they agreed that “a woman’s right to choose always outweighs the rights of the unborn”. Despite it being a strictly-worded question (‘always’), a large proportion – 65 per cent – of both men and women agreed. Similarly, an Ipsos MORI survey in 2008 for Marie Stopes found 57 per cent agreed that “all women should have the right of access to an abortion”.
The pro-life lobby have their killer messages too. Particularly strong is the view that the law is failing to keep up with medical science, especially with regard to neonatal survival rates. However, their main campaign advantage is that the public is generally sympathetic to the view that abortion is not a value neutral choice between one outcome and another, but rather an outcome failure with potentially harmful long-term consequences.
Parliamentary opinion reflects the public mood remarkably well: many MPs are pragmatic, but small proportions at each end of the opinion spectrum feel very strongly about it. And old stereotypes still apply. In the previous Parliament, 90 per cent of Conservative MPs felt the 24-week limit should have been reduced, compared to just 47 per cent of Labour MPs and 68 per cent of Liberal Democrats. That gradient will not have changed significantly, although the composition of Parliament has changed.
From my purview as a pollster, the factor making reform difficult to resist in the future will be the power of the moving picture. Fully one-third of MPs who saw the 4D images from the womb pioneered by Professor Stuart Campbell, first featured in newspapers around eight years ago, said then that they were more inclined to support a reduction in the upper age limit as a result. If MPs are persuaded by them, so the public will be.
Medical science is heading in one direction only and, if neonatal survival rates continue to improve, it’s likely that further pressure will build. The pace of expanding scientific knowledge is already producing a public demand for reviewing policy more frequently: 95 per cent in the 2005 study felt abortion law should be kept under regular review, and 61 per cent agreed that abortion law has not kept up with our knowledge of early development in the womb.
The pro-choice movement needs to decide whether it continues to lobby against evolutionary reform or wait for the dam walls to break. In particular, it should beware of the day when 4D ultrasound scans either become affordable for all prospective parents or widely available on the NHS.
And in the meantime, please don’t shoot the messenger.
Andrew Hawkins is chairman of ComRes