4 Surveys of Attitudes

  1. 4.1 The terms of reference require the commission to consider and develop law reform options that reflect current community standards. This chapter examines several community attitude surveys on abortion. The following chapter describes in detail the main findings of our community consultation process.
  2. 4.2 Public attitudes have several implications for abortion law. They can inform legislators of the broad principles the law should be based upon, but do not settle the debate about the detail of the law.

Community Attitudes Data

  1. 4.3 The strongly expressed opinions of interest groups tend to dominate the public discourse about abortion, although public opinion is not limited to the views of the best organised or best resourced lobby groups. For that reason, the commission has examined general community attitudes to provide a broader social context for the findings. This has assisted the commission to identify points of consensus in what is a highly polarised debate.
  2. 4.4 We commissioned Professor David Studdert, Federation Fellow at the University of Melbourne, to analyse five studies. Professor Studdert holds a joint professorial appointment in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health Sciences. He recently joined the university from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Review of Surveys

  1. 4.5 Public opinion about abortion is occasionally tested through snap polls and questionnaires, but over the past decade only a few published studies have attempted rigorous measurement of attitudes to abortion.
  2. 4.6 We identified five such studies. Each claims generalisable estimates of the population’s views regarding abortion and various abortion-related issues.

Australian Survey of Social Attitudes

Background

  1. 4.7 The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) is a major national social survey. It is conducted biennially by survey researchers from the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute at the Australian National University. The inaugural survey was conducted in 2003 and repeated in 2005, and the 2007 survey was recently in the field. The survey contains more than 200 questions on a wide range of topics, including work, taxes, government services, family life, education, and living standards.

Content

  1. 4.8 The 2003 and 2005 surveys presented an identical question on abortion. Appearing in a section entitled, Families and Relationships, the question is worded as follows:

Here are two statements about family planning today. Please tell us how much you agree or disagree with each of the following statements.

(a) A woman should have the right to choose whether or not she has an abortion.

(b) Unmarried women should have as much right to fertility treatment (IVF) as married women.

Results

  1. 4.9 In the 2003 AuSSA, 81% of respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the abortion proposition (ie proposition (a)), 9% disagreed or strongly disagreed, and the rest were neutral or could not decide. Results of the 2005 AuSSA were virtually identical: 79% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed and 10% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Survey Strengths and Limitations

  1. 4.10 The survey is national in scope, well designed, and conducted by experienced researchers. Analyses from this survey series have been subjected to peer review and published in scholarly journals.
  2. 4.11 The sample size is large: 4270 respondents in 2003 and 3902 in 2005.1
  3. 4.12 The response rates (44% in 2003 and 43% in 2005) would not be classified as ‘high’ by general standards of survey research, which creates some risks of non-response bias.2 Response rates in the 40–50% range are generally regarded as ‘fair’; however, it is probably reasonable to generalise cautiously from these results to attitudes of the Australian public at large regarding abortion.
  4. 4.13 A single question addresses abortion and its wording is non-specific. The term ‘right to choose’ is not defined. In addition, it is not possible to determine what proportion of the eight in ten respondents who agreed that a right to choose exists would also consider it acceptable to constrain that right in certain circumstances.
  5. 4.14 The question is paired with one eliciting respondents’ opinions about unmarried women’s access to in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). This creates some potential for responses that are affected by surrounding questions, or framing bias. This possibility is curtailed somewhat by the fact that the abortion question comes first. Also, it is not obvious how or in which direction the presence of the IVF question might skew responses to the abortion question.

Australian Election Study

Background

  1. 4.15 The Australian Election Study (AES) is a national mail-back survey designed to gauge electoral behaviour and attitudes of Australian voters around the time of federal elections. Researchers from the Australian National University, Queensland University of Technology, and the University of Queensland run the survey.3
  2. 4.16 The AES surveys contain a wide range of questions covering political views and affiliations, as well as attitudes to social issues such as immigration, taxes, and work. A core set of questions repeats through successive waves, but each wave also focuses on a particular theme and introduces new questions.

Content

  1. 4.17 The seventh AES survey, conducted in 2004, contained the following question:

Which one of these statements comes closest to how you feel about abortion in Australia?

1. Women should be able to obtain an abortion readily when they want one.

2. Abortion should be allowed only in special circumstances.

3. Abortion should not be allowed under any circumstances.

4. Don’t know.

Results

  1. 4.18 Fifty-four per cent of respondents chose option one, 35% chose option two and 4% chose option three.

Survey Strengths and Limitations

  1. 4.19 Like the AuSSA, this survey is national in scope, well designed, and conducted by an experienced team of survey researchers. Analyses of the 2004 data, as well as findings from previous waves, have been published in peer-reviewed literature.
  2. 4.20 The sample size is moderate with 1769 respondents in 2004.4
  3. 4.21 The response rate (45% in 2004) is approximately the same as AuSSA’s. This response rate is fair, and creates some potential for non-response bias, but generalising cautiously from the survey’s abortion results is probably reasonable.
  4. 4.22 Although more specific than the abortion question in AuSSA, the AES question is also quite general. In particular, in option two the ‘special circumstances’ in which abortion ‘should be allowed’ are not defined.5

Southern Cross Bioethics Institute Survey

Background

  1. 4.23 The Southern Cross Bioethics Institute (SCBI) was established in 1987 as an initiative of the Catholic aged care provider, Southern Cross Care. SCBI’s website describes it as ‘an independent, non-sectarian, autonomous institution committed to research into important bioethical issues affecting the whole community—locally, nationally and internationally’.6 The website goes on to say:

Southern Cross Bioethics Institute adheres to universal human values, human rights, and the laws of humanity, including the inviolable and inalienable right to life of every member of the human family, whatever the age, status or ability of that member, from conception to natural death.

  1. 4.24 In 2004, SCBI commissioned Sexton Market Research, a private market research company, to conduct a series of surveys and interviews to assess the attitudes of Australians to abortion. Financial support for the project came from an anonymous businessman. Researchers involved in the study have stated that ‘[t]he businessman concerned played no role in the research project beyond providing the necessary funding’.7
  2. 4.25 A selection of results from this research was published in a recent book by Drs John Fleming and Nicholas Tonti-Filippini—two bioethicists affiliated with the SCBI.8

Content

  1. 4.26 The research proceeded in four stages. Stage 1, conducted in December 2004, involved a telephone survey of 1200 adults drawn from all states and territories.9 Stage 2 involved qualitative research, based on data drawn from six focus groups convened in February 2005.
  2. 4.27 Stages 3 and 4 both involved additional telephone surveys of 1200 adults. There is limited information available about the survey methods used in these stages. It appears likely that the sampling technique and survey methodology resemble those used in stage 1.
  3. 4.28 The stage 3 survey focused on attitudes to sex education. The stage 4 survey focused on attitudes to RU486 (mifepristone), stem-cell research, cloning, and counselling.

Table 1: Attitudes to Abortion Access10

Q3. I will ask you now about some different social issues. Please give your own personal opinions, that is, how you feel personally on each issue. The first issue is whether women should have unrestricted access to abortion on demand, no matter what the circumstance. Do you agree or disagree with that view? [Is that strongly agree/disagree or somewhat agree/disagree?].

RESPONSE OPTION

STAGE 1

1. Strongly agree

37%

2. Somewhat agree

25%

3. Neutral

4%

4. Somewhat disagree

15%

5. Strongly disagree

19%

6. Undecided

1%

 

 

Table 2: Attitudes to Abortion Rate

Q9. With approximately 90 000 abortions conducted in Australia each year, some people we have spoken to have the opinion that there are too many abortions in Australia at present and it would be a good thing if the number of abortions was reduced. Do you agree or disagree with that point of view?1112

RESPONSE OPTION

STAGE 1

STAGE 312

1. Strongly agree

39%

61%

2. Somewhat agree

25%

3. Neutral

8%

39%

4. Somewhat disagree

11%

5. Strongly disagree

18%

6. Undecided

4%

 

 

 

Table 3: Attitudes to Abortion Rate and Access

Q10. If ways could be found to reduce the number of abortions in Australia but still giving women the right to freely choose an abortion, do you think that would be a good thing or not?

RESPONSE OPTION

STAGE 1

STAGE 3

STAGE 4

1. Yes

87%

63%

88%

2. No

7%

9%

6%

3. Don’t know

6%

28%

7%

 

Survey Strengths and Limitations

  1. 4.29 The specificity and range of abortion-related questions is superior to that of the AuSSA and AES, although ambiguities and uncertainties remain.
  2. 4.30 The stage 1, 2 and 3 surveys had response rates of 23%, 24% and 22%, respectively. These are low, introduce considerable potential for non-response bias, and make generalising to the population problematic.
  3. 4.31 There are several limitations with the survey design. Based on their wording, respondents may have perceived certain questions as non-neutral inquiries, which may have affected their response. For example, Q9 elicits views on the appropriateness of the frequency of abortion in Australia. The question is framed as a negative proposition, and the lead-in to it notes the opposition of ‘some people we have spoken to’.13
  4. 4.32 Several parts of the general attitude questions are also vaguely worded. For example, Q10 elicits respondents’ agreement with ‘the right to freely choose an abortion’, but predicates it on a contingency, namely, that ‘ways could be found to reduce the number of abortions in Australia’. The term ‘ways’ is not defined or clarified.

Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations Survey

Background

  1. 4.33 The Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations (AFRTLA) is ‘a national coalition of pro-life groups’ which ‘works to affirm and protect human life from human zygote until natural death’.14 The AFRTLA commissioned Queensland market research company Market Facts to conduct a two-stage national opinion poll about abortion. Stage 1 was conducted in April–May 2005 and stage 2 in August–September 2005. There were 1200 respondents in each stage.

Content

  1. 4.34 Both stages had the same introduction and first three questions:

Abortion is an operation or procedure which involves termination of an unwanted or difficult pregnancy, preventing the birth of a live child. Approximately 90 000 abortions are performed each year in Australia.

Q1 Do you believe abortion involves the taking of a human life? (YES/NO/Don’t know)

Q2 Do you believe that by 20 weeks of pregnancy, the earliest point at which survival outside the womb is possible, that an unborn child is a human person with human rights? (YES/NO/Don’t know)

Q3 Do you believe that abortion can harm the physical and/or mental health of a woman? (YES/NO/Don’t know)

  1. 4.35 The stage 1 survey then posed questions eliciting views on abortion generally, counselling and ‘cooling-off periods’, parental consent for minors, and Medicare funding for abortions. The stage 2 survey asked respondents about the stages of pregnancy in which abortion should be allowed and the appropriateness of public funding of abortions at various gestational ages.

Major Abortion Questions

  1. 4.36 In stage 1, two questions elicited respondents’ general views on abortion:

Q4. Do you support abortion for any reason whatsoever, that is, abortion on demand?

Q5. Do you support abortion for non-medical, that is, for financial or social reasons?

  1. 4.37 In stage 2 there were two questions about stages of pregnancy at which abortion should be allowed:

Q4. Up to what stage of pregnancy would you allow abortion?

1. At any time up to 13 weeks, that is 3 months

2. At any time up to 20 weeks, that is half-way through pregnancy

3. At any time during pregnancy up to birth

4. Not at all

5. Don’t know

Q6. Would you allow late-term abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy for non-medical, that is in cases of financial or emotional stress? (YES/NO/Don’t know)

Results

  1. 4.38 Sixty per cent of stage 1 respondents said they supported ‘abortion on demand’, 32% said they did not, 8% said they didn’t know. Thirty-nine per cent said they supported abortion for financial or social reasons and 51% said they opposed abortion for these reasons.
  2. 4.39 Thirty-nine per cent of stage 2 respondents said that they would allow abortion up to 13 weeks, 13% said up to 20 weeks, 6% said any time up to birth, and 34% said abortion should not be allowed at all.
  3. 4.40 Eighty-two per cent of respondents in stage 2 said they would not allow abortion after 20 weeks for non-medical reasons, 12% said they would allow it and the remainder said they did not know.

Survey Strengths and Limitations

  1. 4.41 The range and specificity of questions is strong. More than any other survey in the group under review here, the AFRTLA survey assembles a group of questions that delves into attitudes to various grounds for and gestational limits on abortion.
  2. 4.42 The response rates for both stages (in the range of 21–23% for stage 1 and approximately 20% for stage 2) are similar to those from the SCBI survey and, consequently, share the same vulnerability to non-response bias.
  3. 4.43 Inconsistencies are apparent between the responses to the general attitude question (stage 1, Q4) and the more focused questions (stage 1, Q5; stage 2, Q4 and Q6). These inconsistencies are reviewed in detail in the key findings section of this chapter.
  4. 4.44 Like the SCBI survey, the AFRTLA survey raises concerns about question design. For example, regardless of their accuracy, the survey’s opening with the annual incidence of abortion and statement to respondents that the procedure prevents the birth of a live child may provoke a negative response. Similarly, the question eliciting views on late-term abortion is prefaced by the following statement:

The following question relates to late-term abortion, which is abortion after 20 weeks, or about 5 months, of pregnancy. In Australia premature babies can survive from 23 weeks, although some babies as young as 20 weeks have survived overseas.

  1. 4.45 A stage 2 question that elicits views on Medicare funding of abortion is also somewhat negatively loaded.15
  2. 4.46 Again, even if the information is correct, it is not balanced (eg by mention in the late-term abortion question of the incidence of long-term complications among very premature babies).16 This approach to question design increases risks that the survey question itself will shape responses, particularly among respondents without strong or well-formed views on the matter.

Marie Stopes International Survey

Background

  1. 4.47 The Marie Stopes International (MSI) partnership is a non-government organisation headquartered in the UK which provides sexual and reproductive healthcare services. MSI has operations in 38 countries. The website of its Australian chapter states that the organisation ‘strives to bring a quality of care, accessibility and consistency in sexual and reproductive healthcare to all Australians’.17 The services provided by MSI include education and counselling, abortion, vasectomy, contraception, and check-ups for sexually transmitted diseases.
  2. 4.48 MSI commissioned WebSurvey, a data collection and research agency specialising in online surveys, to survey a sample of women about their experience of unplanned pregnancies, particularly their use of counselling services. WebSurvey used an online service provider18 that links clients such as MSI with samples of consumers who are paid to respond to market research surveys.19
  3. 4.49 Invitations to participate were sent to 6593 women, weighted to be representative of Australian women by age and state of residence, and 2003 replied. Approximately half of those who replied reported experiencing an unplanned pregnancy and were eligible to participate.20
  4. 4.50 The report of study findings is dated November 2006 but the date the survey was conducted is not given.21

Content

  1. 4.51 The survey contained 22 questions, including several open-ended ones. The questions covered counselling, support, and decision making during the unplanned pregnancy, outcome of the pregnancy, and views on abortion. The survey had a heavy emphasis on counselling issues.
  2. 4.52 Two questions elicited attitudes to abortion. One question addressed current views; the other enquired about views held at the time of the unplanned pregnancy. The basic question and response options are identical to the question posed in the 2004 AES, with slight alterations to wording to make the temporal distinction. The questions were:

Q13. Which of the following statements comes closest to your current views about abortion?

Q14. At the time of your unplanned pregnancy, which of these statements comes closest to how you felt about abortion?

  1. 4.53 The response options for both questions were:

1. Women should be able to obtain an abortion readily when they want one

2. Abortion should be allowed only in special circumstances

3. Abortion should not be allowed under any circumstances

4. Don’t know.

Results

  1. 4.54 For question 13, 60% of respondents chose option 1, 30% chose option 2 and 3% chose option 3.
  2. 4.55 For question 14, 57% chose option 1, 28% chose option 2, and 7% chose option 3.
  3. 4.56 Thus, comparing respondents’ feelings before and after their unplanned pregnancy, there was a slight shift towards support for abortion afterwards. The proportion of women who were opposed to abortion under any circumstances dropped from 7% to 3%.

Survey Strengths and Limitations

  1. 4.57 The sampling approach targeted a group of women who had direct personal experience with the type of circumstances that may force consideration of abortion, thereby eliminating some of the noise that surrounds off-the-cuff responses from general population samples. Sequencing questions in the way this survey did also has the potential to provide insight into how the experience of an unplanned pregnancy affects attitudes to abortion.
  2. 4.58 Both of the above strengths introduce weaknesses. Most importantly, the targeted nature of the sampling methodology means that the results are not generalisable to the whole population.22 The question sequencing, which asked women to think back to how they previously felt about abortion, possibly during quite an emotional period, demands a difficult cognitive exercise; the potential for recall bias23 is fairly high.24
  3. 4.59 The response rate to the MSI survey is incalculable because the number of eligible women (ie those who had experienced unplanned pregnancies) among the 4590 who did not respond to the invitation to participate is unknown.25

Opinions by Population Subgroup

  1. 4.60 Except for the MSI survey, the findings present snapshots of opinion at the overall population level. Some published information is available on opinions within population subgroups.26
  2. 4.61 Specifically, analyses of the 2003 AuSSA and AFRTLA survey show some systematic differences in beliefs held according to certain demographic characteristics.

Unadjusted Analyses

  1. 4.62 The 2003 AuSSA data suggested that:
  • people who have no religion are more likely than those who do to agree that a woman has a right to choose whether she has an abortion, although support for the proposition is strong within both groups (93% v 77%) (Table 1)27
  • men are only marginally less likely than women (80% v 82%) to agree that a woman should have the right to choose whether she has an abortion (Table 2)
  • although 82% of women of all ages agree that a woman should have the right to choose whether she has an abortion, a larger proportion of women aged under 50 than those over 50 agreed (Table 2)
  • among women 18–49 years of age, those without children were marginally more likely than those with children to agree with the right-to-choose statement (90% v 86%) (Table 2).

Table 4: Attitudes to Abortion by Religion, AuSSA 200328

Q. A woman should have the right to choose whether or not she has an abortion.

 

AGREE

NEITHER AGREE NOR DISAGREE

DISAGREE

CAN’T CHOOSE

Total

81%

7%

9%

2%

Doesn’t have a religion

93%

5%

2%

1%

Does have a religion

77%

8%

13%

2%

 

 

Table 5: Attitudes to Abortion by Gender, Age, and Motherhood, AuSSA 200329

Q. A woman should have the right to choose whether or not she has an abortion.

 

AGREE

NEITHER AGREE NOR DISAGREE

DISAGREE

CAN’T CHOOSE

Total

81%

7%

9%

2%

Men

80%

8%

10%

2%

Women

82%

6%

9%

2%

Women aged 18–49

All women 18–49 yrs

87%

5%

7%

2%

Have children

86%

5%

7%

2%

Do not have children

90%

5%

5%

1%

 

 

  1. 4.63 When examining predictors of attitudes to abortion at different stages of pregnancy, analyses of the AFTRLA survey data suggested that:
  • a larger proportion of men than women supported abortion after 13 weeks of pregnancy (22% v 16%) (Table 6)
  • outright opposition to abortion appears to increase with age after 35 years, with 29% of 35–44 year olds opposed to it, 33% of 45–54 year olds, 36% of 55–64 year olds, and 43% of respondents aged 65 years or older (Table 6)
  • a larger minority of men than women supported late-term abortion (17% v 9%)
  • (Table 7).

Table 6: Attitudes to Abortion at Different Stages of Pregnancy, AFRTLA survey30

Q. Up to what stage of pregnancy would you allow abortion?

 

UP TO 13 WEEKS

UP TO 20 WEEKS

ANY TIME

UP TO BIRTH

NOT AT ALL

DON’T KNOW

Total

38%

13%

6%

34%

9%

Gender

Male

35%

14%

8%

33%

10%

Female

41%

11%

5%

35%

8%

Age

18–34 yrs

38%

18%

5%

32%

6%

35–44 yrs

38%

16%

8%

29%

10%

45–54 yrs

36%

15%

5%

33%

10%

55–64 yrs

45%

7%

5%

36%

8%

65+ yrs

36%

2%

6%

43%

12%

 

 

Table 7: Attitudes to late-term abortion for non-medical reasons by gender and age, AFRTLA survey31

Q. Would you allow late-term abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy for non-medical reasons, that is, in cases of financial or emotional stress?

 

YES

NO

DON’T KNOW

Total

12%

81%

6%

Gender

Male

17%

75%

8%

Female

9%

86%

5%

Age

18–34 yrs

11%

82%

7%

35–44 yrs

11%

85%

3%

45–54 yrs

14%

81%

5%

55–64 yrs

14%

80%

6%

65+ yrs

12%

78%

10%

 

Adjusted Analyses of AuSSA 2003

  1. 4.64 Analyses of subgroup differences in the AuSSA examined the association between responses to the right-to-choose statement and demographic characteristics in adjusted (multivariate) analyses.32
  2. 4.65 Among men, marital status and religiousness were significant predictors of agreement with the right-to-choose statement. Specifically:
  • men who said they had a religion were less likely to agree with the statement than men without a religion
  • men who never or sometimes attended religious services were more likely to agree with the statement than men who often attended services
  • divorced, separated or widowed men were less likely to agree with the statement than currently married or cohabiting men.
  1. 4.66 Among women, religiousness, education, and age were significant predictors of agreement with the right-to-choose statement. Specifically:
  • women with a religion were less likely to agree with the statement than women without a religion
  • women who never or sometimes attended services were more likely to agree with the statement than women who often attended services
  • women with at least a Bachelor’s degree were more likely to agree with the statement than women with less than a Bachelor’s degree
  • women aged 65 and older were less likely to agree with the statement than women aged 18–34 years.

Key Findings

  1. 4.67 From a technical standpoint, the academic surveys (AuSSA and AES) present the strongest estimates of what Australians think about abortion.
  2. 4.68 The AuSSA waves from 2003 and 2005 suggest that approximately 80% of Australians support a woman’s right to choose. In the 2004 AES, half of the respondents stated that women should be able to obtain an abortion ‘readily’ and another third thought it should be allowed but only in special circumstances; fewer than 1 in 20 respondents to the AES said that abortion should not be allowed under any circumstances.
  3. 4.69 The AuSSA and AES had response rates in the 40–50% range, which supports cautious generalisation to the views of the wider population. The primary weakness of these surveys, on the other hand, is that abortion is dealt with in a single question, which lacks specificity.33
  4. 4.70 Consequently, the strongest conclusions that may be drawn from these two large-scale surveys actually pertain to the prevalence of public opposition to abortion, rather than the extent of support for it. The AuSSA and AES provide reasonable evidence for the conclusion that no more than 10% of the Australian population opposes abortion outright. In addition, on the basis of AES results, it is reasonable to conclude that approximately half of the population supports relatively open access to abortion services and an additional third supports access within certain limits.
  5. 4.71 The SCBI and AFRTLA surveys have some technical problems, as discussed. The impact of the low response rate on findings is difficult to predict. For sensitive issues such as abortion, the conventional wisdom is that low response rates undermine generalisability because people with relatively strong views are disproportionately likely to participate;34 however, because abortion is an issue with passionate advocates on both sides of the debate, it is unclear how large the bias would be and which way it would run.35
  6. 4.72 Problems with survey design and question construction were apparent in both the SCBI and AFRTLA surveys. The resulting bias from this limitation can be predicted more confidently: it would likely run towards negative reactions. In other words, because of the way some questions were framed and worded, SCBI and AFRTLA results may tend to overstate opposition to abortion.36
  7. 4.73 Nevertheless, a remarkable feature of the SCBI and AFRLTA surveys is that their general attitude questions generally support the main messages of the academic surveys.37 In the case of the SCBI survey, 62% of respondents believed that women should have ‘unrestricted access to abortion on demand, no matter what the circumstance’. Excluding respondents whose views were neutral or undecided, the proportion increases to 72%. Given the scope of abortion access presented in the question, this is a high level of support indeed—one that is certainly not out of step with the 80% level of support found in the AuSSA and AES.
  8. 4.74 Similarly, 87% of respondents to the SCBI affirmed ‘the right to freely choose an abortion’, provided that ‘ways could be found to reduce the number of abortions in Australia’. This is a very high level of support although the question is hard to interpret because of the contingency attached to it. By implication, the ways chosen to reduce abortion would not interfere with free choice in individual cases. Public campaigns to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and provision of a broad range of pre-procedure counselling services are the type of interventions that may walk this line. One can only speculate on whether respondents contemplated these or other types of intervention.
  9. 4.75 Sixy per cent of respondents in stage 1 of the AFRTLA survey indicated support for abortion ‘for any reason whatsoever’, which essentially matches the level of support found in the SCBI survey (62%); however, the precise nature of that support is unclear. Responses to subsequent questions complicate the picture.
  10. 4.76 In the very next question, for example, a slight majority of respondents (51%) said they opposed abortion for financial or social reasons. Among stage 2 respondents who had an opinion about term limits, 56% favoured them (42% at 13 weeks and 14% at 20 weeks) and an additional 37% of respondents were against abortion altogether.38 These figures cannot easily be reconciled with the 60% level of support for abortion ‘on demand’. Nor can the 82% of respondents who opposed late-term abortion after 20 weeks for non-medical reasons.
  11. 4.77 Hence, the AFRTLA survey appears to present mutually incompatible responses to general and specific attitude questions. Answers to the questions about gestational limits and non-medical motivations did not accurately capture respondents’ views about freedom of choice and abortion, or, as the report itself concludes, there exists ‘public confusion on what abortion on demand is’.39
  12. 4.78 In any case, it may be inappropriate to place too much weight on responses to any of the AFRTLA questions in light of the survey’s low response rate and design limitations. On the basis of the AFRTLA findings it is probably reasonable to conclude that the high level of support for women’s right to abortion recedes somewhat when respondents are asked more precise queries about the timing of procedures and women’s reasons for seeking abortions, but it is difficult to estimate the extent to which this occurs on the basis of the AFRTLA survey alone.
  13. 4.79 Results from the MSI survey are broadly consistent with those from a nearly identical question in the AES survey. In the AES survey, 86% of respondents (male and female) said women should be able to obtain an abortion ‘readily’ or in ‘special circumstances’. In the MSI survey, 85% of respondents took this position at the time of their unplanned pregnancy and 90% felt this way afterwards.40

Conclusions

  1. 4.80 Professor Studdert reached the following overall conclusions.
  2. 4.81 Available data on the attitudes of Australians to abortion is not particularly strong. In the two strongest surveys from a methodological viewpoint, the information comes from single general questions, which permit a limited view of community sentiment. Two other surveys commissioned by groups with conservative positions about abortion ask more specific questions, but suffer from poor response rates and problems in survey design.
  3. 4.82 In view of these limitations, the available evidence provides general support for the following conclusions:
  • A majority of Australians support a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion.
  • A subset of those supporters regard the right as capable of limitation, with restriction of choice based on factors such as gestational age and women’s reasons for seeking the abortion. However, there is insufficient evidence to estimate the size of that subset.
  • Several socio-demographic characteristics are associated with positive (and negative) views of abortion. For example, there is less support for abortion among persons with religious beliefs than among persons without religious beliefs; nonetheless, even among persons with religious beliefs, supporters remain in the majority.

Footnotes

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