In light of the publication of the World Values Survey this month, MSI UK Advocacy and Public Affairs Advisor Louise McCudden reflects on public attitudes towards abortion in Great Britain and current state of abortion rights in the UK.
This month, you may have seen the World Values Survey reported in the news. The leading takeaway for most media outlets has been that Great Britain is more socially liberal than many global counterparts, and that it is one of the most liberal countries in the world when it comes to abortion.
What does the World Values Survey tell us about views on abortion in Great Britain?
In some media outlets, it has been reported that 47% of people in Great Britain believe abortion is justifiable. While that is higher than it has been in the past, it is also much lower than figures previously reported, including figures gathered from our own research, which has found that 9 in 10 UK adults are pro-choice. If referenced out of context, this could leave people with the impression that around 53% of people do not consider abortion justifiable. This is, fortunately, not the case at all.
Opposition to abortion is a minority view in Britain. In the World Values Survey, only 7% said abortion is never justifiable, compared with 27% who said it was always justifiable. The survey question about abortion was not a binary one with only two answers; respondents were given a scale of 1-10, with 1 representing ‘never’ and 10 representing ‘always’ justifiable. The 47% figure appears to account for respondents who selected the top three options only.
We know from our own conversations with people that it can be tricky to make absolutist statements about abortion, such as ‘always.’ It’s not surprising that many pro-choice people selected options somewhere around the middle of the scale.
This chimes with what we know from our own work. In 2019, a study found that 9 in 10 UK adults consider themselves pro-choice, and the British Social Attitudes Survey 2012 (the most recent wave of the survey to ask about abortion) also shows a clear pro-choice majority. This isn’t just an abstract issue; one in three women in the UK has an abortion by the time she is 45.
Abortion rights in the UK
Our pro-choice values as a country are generally reflected in the way our lawmakers legislate. In recent years, Westminster has backed two pieces of significant legislation which both improve domestic abortion rights in England and Wales. The first was an amendment to the Health and Social Care Act 2022 which made at-home abortion access (telemedicine) permanently legal. The second was an amendment to the Public Order Bill, which, once passed, will introduce Safe Access Zones to protect abortion clinics from harassment. In Northern Ireland, Assembly Member Clare Bailey’s successful bill to introduce Safe Access Zones was upheld last December by the UK Supreme Court, and the government in Scotland has committed to introducing a similar policy.
Overall, the World Values Survey tells a hopeful story, with the vast majority expressing clear support for democratic, economic, and political measures of gender equality. It reports that over 68% of people have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in women’s organisations, including over 63% of men.
There’s certainly no room for complacency, and the repeal of Roe v Wade in the US, as well as rollbacks in places like Poland and Hungary have been significant recent reminders of just how carefully our reproductive rights must be guarded. And there’s more to do. Abortion still sits within criminal law in Great Britain, and there is no clinical or ethical reason why it should do so. It is under-funded and often stigmatised. But despite these challenges, from public opinion to political activity, the picture is far from bleak.