Study: Britain Split On Whether Abortion Is Important Issue

By Jason Pierce | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

London ( - Half of all British voters don't consider a candidate's stance on abortion when casting their ballots, according to a poll commissioned by the country's largest private abortion provider and released Tuesday.

Pollsters from MORI, backed by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), surveyed 2,000 voters and found that 43 percent of Britons consider abortion to be "fairly important" or "very important" when deciding on which candidate to support.

By contrast, more than seven in 10 U.S. voters said that abortion was an important issue according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted prior to the 2000 election.

Nearly two-thirds of the British voters who considered abortion to be important in making voting decisions were pro-choice, according to MORI. The poll also found that support for abortion on demand has increased in Britain, from slightly over half in 1980 to 62 percent today.

Frank Dobson, a Labour Party member of parliament and former health secretary who attended the announcement of the poll results, said the study would allow legislators to be more forthright in voicing their opinions on abortion.

Dobson said that while he "entirely respects the anti-abortion view," he felt that abortion was a matter of conscience and that personal viewpoints shouldn't be swayed by public pressure or party lines.

"No laws in any society have ever prevented deliberate pregnancy terminations," he said. "The only question is whether abortions were available and whether they were safe or not."

BPAS Chief Executive Ian Jones said the organization funded the survey because of a complaint during the U.K.'s last general election that the group had been unfairly interfering in politics and trying to influence voters by commenting on the positions of candidates on the abortion question. A panel cleared the group of attempting to influence the election, but BPAS wanted to have a sharper idea of how abortion policies influenced voters.

Anti-abortion welcome

The country's largest anti-abortion group also welcomed the results of the poll. John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), called the survey "one of the most encouraging pieces of news in a long time."

"If half of British voters don't consider a candidate's views on abortion to be important, this suggests that a roughly equal proportion do consider such views to be of significance," he said. "I think this is an extraordinarily high percentage."

Smeaton said the experiences of SPUC campaigners have been to the contrary of the finding that nearly two-thirds of British voters who consider abortion to be an important issue are pro-choice.

"We find that if they consider the issue at all, they are concerned by the easy availability of abortion," he said.

Jon O'Brien, vice president of the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice, also questioned one result of the poll, but from a different standpoint. O'Brien contended that while abortion receives ample coverage in the U.S. media, its actual importance as an election issue is comparatively small. He pointed to a Gallup poll conducted before the last presidential election that found that voters rated abortion 10th in importance on a list of 11 hot-button issues.

O'Brien also noted that compared to the United States, debate over abortion is remarkably mild in Britain.

"I often field calls from journalists who seem to think that extreme opinions are on the rise in the U.K. because of one event or another," he said. "But, in reality, I find that opponents of legal abortion tend to organize press conferences rather than take more extreme action. The debate is far too sensible here (for extreme viewpoints)."

Smeaton of the SPUC countered by saying that airing abortion views has the potential to make or break candidates during British general elections.

"We find that most people respond positively to our calls when we broadcast the voting records of M.P.'s," he said. "This must be the case - otherwise we wouldn't spend a good deal of money during elections to further the pro-life agenda."

E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.

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