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The Northern Ireland public has indicated its support for changes to abortion law, according to a major new report by Ulster University (UU).
Findings based on the survey of 1,208 adults for the 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey show there is very strong support for abortion in cases of fatal or serious foetal abnormality or where a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, not currently allowed in the North.
Some 77 per cent of those surveyed believe it is unfair that women in Britain can have an abortion free within the NHS but Northern Ireland women cannot have an abortion on the NHS anywhere within the UK.
UU Prof Ann-Marie Gray’s research, launched in Belfast on Friday, is described as the most in-depth survey of public attitudes to abortion ever conducted in Northern Ireland and includes local attitudes to existing law on abortion, whether the law should be changed and in what circumstances, and views on the criminalisation of abortion.
She said: “These findings come at a pivotal time when the supreme high court has just ruled that Northern Ireland women are still not entitled to free NHS abortions in England.”
In the North access to abortion is permitted only if a woman’s life is at risk or there is risk to her mental or physical health that is long term or permanent.
Fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest are not circumstances in which abortions can be performed legally.
According to the British Medical Association, 16 legal abortions were performed in Northern Ireland in 2015-16.
The new research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, reveals in circumstances where a serious health condition means that the woman will die if she continues the pregnancy, 83 per cent of respondents believe abortion should definitely or probably be legal. Some 56 per cent believe it definitely should be legal.
Where there is a serious threat to the woman’s physical or mental health if she continues the pregnancy, 76 per cent of those surveyed believe abortion should definitely or probably be legal.
Some 81 per cent believe abortion should definitely or probably be legal where the foetus has a fatal abnormality and will not survive the birth.
The figure is 73 per cent where the foetus has a serious abnormality and the baby may not survive beyond birth.
Some 78 per cent stated it should probably be legal where a woman has become pregnant as a result of rape or incest with over half (54 per cent) of those taking part in the survey saying abortion should definitely be legal in this case.
Some 43 per cent said it should definitely be illegal for a woman to have an abortion because she has become pregnant and does not want to have children with 17 per cent saying it should probably be illegal.
The research also found Catholics are less accepting of abortion than Protestants.
“Religious faith is associated with attitudes to abortions with Catholics found as being less accepting of abortion than Protestants and non-religious respondents,” said Prof Gray.
“There is also evidence that support for abortion has increased among both Catholics and Protestants since 1990.”
Some 72 per cent of Catholics, 84 per cent of Protestants and 93 per cent of those with no religion said abortion should definitely or probably be legal if the foetus has a fatal abnormality and the baby will not survive beyond the birth.
For a woman who has become pregnant because of rape or incest, 69 per cent of Catholics, 81 per cent of Protestants and 93 per cent with no religion stated it should be definitely or probably legal to have an abortion.
More than 60 per cent of respondents definitely or probably felt a woman should not be allowed to have an abortion because she felt she had completed her family or because she felt she couldn’t afford more children while 69 per cent were against a woman having an abortion because she was about to start a new job.
The results also show that 53 per cent definitely or probably felt a 15-year-old girl should be allowed to have an abortion. The figure was 45 per cent for a 51-year-old woman.
In relation to women travelling to England to access private abortions, 77 per cent agreed “that we are exporting our problems rather than dealing with them”. Those aged between 45 and 54 years were the category most likely to strongly agree with that statement (42.1 per cent).
Some 72 per cent believed it is unfair that some Northern Ireland women can afford to travel and pay for a private abortion in England and others don’t have the money to do this, while 77 per cent felt it is unfair that women in Britain can have an abortion within the NHS but Northern Ireland women cannot have an abortion on the NHS anywhere within the UK.
Grainne Teggart, campaign manager for Amnesty International in Northern Ireland, said, “Abortion is a healthcare and human rights issue. It’s high time the law was changed in line with the overwhelming wishes of the public. Then women would no longer have to travel to England for an abortion and they and their medical carers would no longer be treated as criminals.
“Politicians in Northern Ireland and at Westminster must heed this demand for change.”
There was strong opposition to the criminalisation of abortion, including in cases where people buy abortion pills online with over 70 per cent of respondents saying that a pregnant woman should not face criminal charges for buying pills online if she has become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, if there is a risk to her life or a serious threat to her mental or physical health.
“Northern Ireland currently has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Women who are viewed as infringing these laws and those who assist them are subject to criminal penalties,” Prof Gray said.
“Our findings provide evidence that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is out of step with public opinion and there is very strong support for changes to the law.
“We believe that this extremely timely and comprehensive piece of research into a very emotive topic can and should inform the discussion and any future decision making.”
Amnesty’s Ms Teggart said Stormont and Westminster politicians must take action to change the law. “Today’s results confirm what we have long known: that an overwhelming majority favour reform of our inhumane abortion laws,” she said. “People who think women should be denied abortions are in a small and ever-decreasing minority.
“Not only do a huge majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see abortion made available to women and girls in the tragic circumstances of sexual crime or fatal foetal diagnosis, but they also want to see abortion decriminalised and dealt with through healthcare policy.”