Guest post: Abortion in Scotland - The facts behind the figures

Juliet Swann is a policy and parliamentary consultant, Engender board member, and an expert on all things to do with participation in democracy. Here she takes a look at the facts behind recently reported polling figures on attitudes towards abortion in Scotland:

You may have seen recent press coverage of polling on public attitudes to abortion – in Scotland the Herald and the Evening Times both carried headlines suggesting that Scots support further limiting the availability of abortions to women. The polling was welcomed by the Telegraph, the Times, the Catholic Times and SPUC.

I thought I’d dig a little deeper.

The polling was carried out by ComRes on behalf of a group called ‘Where do they stand’.

‘Where do they stand’ claim to be “a grass-roots, volunteer-led initiative which exists to help the public to learn the views of their elected representatives.” Actually it’s where they stand on ‘life issues’.

That’s about as much detail as you can learn about them from their online presence. I asked them for more information, including who funds them but I have yet to receive a response.

The contact for their press release about the poll is a woman called Madeline Page. Madeline used to be the Comms and Media Director for The Alliance of ProLife Students and seems to currently be employed by the Archdiocese of Cardiff.

By inputting your email address, you can send a message to your candidates courtesy of ‘Where do they stand’. This message states:

The brief questionnaire below details hypothetical Bills. Each Bill allows for one of three possible answers: yes, no, abstain – the same three answers available to Members elected to Members of Parliament.

In each case I am asking you to declare how you would vote on the policy of the Bill, that is, whether or not you would agree with its stated aims in principle. Please respond to all questions.

I care very deeply about these issues and your answers may affect my vote.

Your answers and explanations may be published on I would prefer an electronic response, if practicable.

Thank you,

ONLY by checking the small print and clicking through do you get to see the list of ‘hypothetical bills’ your candidates are being asked about, which is here.

So basically, ‘life issues’ means abortion and a couple of questions about assisted dying and embryo research.

Anyway, back to the ComRes poll. Bearing in mind we now know a bit more about who commissioned it.

What makes a reliable opinion poll?

Rules about opinion polls: any less than a 1000 sample is too small for any decent conclusions to be wrought. And you should ask open questions that allow people to offer their opinion without leading them in one particular direction. So let’s have a look and see how this poll meets those very broad brush, commonly held standards.

Firstly the sample size is 2,008 across GB, so far so good. It’s an online poll. Those tend to be less reliable than face to face polling, but in this day and age, more representative than telephone polls as those rely on land lines and very few of us regularly use those anymore.

The gender split was 1104 female and 904 male; 186 were aged 18-24; 270 aged 25-34; 35-44 year olds made up 315 respondents; 45-54 year olds 383; 55-64 year olds 329 and over 65s 525. So 456 respondents were under 35 and 1,237 were over 45.

264 worked in the private sector, 756 in the public sector.

Given the Herald ran with the Scottish stats as a headline you’d be forgiven for thinking there was a decent survey sample in Scotland. Sadly only 155 of respondents live north of the border.

That’s a sample size of one hundred and fifty five people in Scotland. My facebook friends could provide as large a sample.[1]

But even if the sample size is so small, surely the questions are fair and unbiased?

Secondly the questions (bearing in mind they were being asked of 155 people in Scotland).

Q1. Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

Criminal law plays an essential role in protecting patients against medical malpractice (110/16)

Patients who are at serious risk of heavy bleeding due to a medical procedure or powerful drug should have medical supervision, in person, from a doctor (147/4)

Parental or guardian consent should be required for children aged 15 or under to undergo medical procedures or have powerful drugs administered with potentially serious side-effects (149/13)

Parental or guardian consent should be required for girls aged 15 or under to undergo an abortion (115/36)

Doctors should be required by new legislation to verify in person that a patient seeking an abortion is not under pressure from a third party to undergo the abortion (131/22)[2]

You’ll notice that abortion only gets mentioned at the fourth part of the question. Which is misleading. And by holding off until then, psychologically you have pushed the respondent into a certain mindset. To then ask about two groups of women who would seem to be vulnerable further influences the answers from the respondent.

Q2. In Great Britain the upper time limit for abortion is 24 weeks or approximately six months’ gestation. By comparison, in most other EU countries the limit for most abortions is 12 weeks or lower. In light of this difference what do you think the time limit should be in Britain?

Notice the qualifying words ‘approximately’ and ‘most’. This question fails to offer actual facts about abortion provision in the EU so is not presenting an opportunity to make an informed choice. 47 Scots thought the time limit should remain at 24 weeks or be extended. 98 opted for reducing the time limit.

Q3. Where a doctor believes abortion to be the intentional killing of a human being, would you support or oppose the Government making it mandatory for doctors to have to participate in abortion procedures against their will, if they want to remain in their profession? (27/108 )

Q4. In your opinion, would you support or oppose requiring a pharmacist to prescribe a pill against their will, if they believe that pill will end the life of an unborn child? (48/90)

Questions 3 and 4 are ‘conscience clause’ questions. You will notice, again, leading language: “believes abortion to be the intentional killing of a human being” and “believe that pill will end the life of an unborn child” which fails to reference the woman or her choices. This lack of context or framing is another example of bad poll questions.

Q5. Over the past five years, abortion provider Marie Stopes International have been given more than £160 million of taxpayer money to spend overseas, some of which has been used directly to fund abortions. Do you support or oppose tax payer money going to fund abortions overseas?

This is interesting – this question seems to directly allude to the decision of the Trump White House to restrict international aid and re-direct it away from organisations working to ensure women’s reproductive rights are protected. The rhetoric around international aid at the moment is incredibly damaging and so the answers, even from Scottish respondents, that only 40 support this whilst 110 oppose, and of those who oppose 77 would rather see that money spent ‘back in the UK’ speaks volumes to the success of the anti-aid rhetoric. Again you will notice the qualifier ‘some of which has been used directly to fund abortions’. In fact, Marie Stopes provide funding for Irish women to undergo abortions because they simply cannot safely access the procedure in Ireland. This is probably the sum of money referred to. Internationally, Marie Stopes works to improve access to contraception and to support maternal health services. Simply put; they protect the rights of women.

Q6. In the Netherlands, the law requires a waiting period of five days between an initial consultation with a doctor and an abortion taking place, in order to ensure that the mother has had enough time to consider all of the options available to her. To what extent, if at all, do you agree or disagree that in this respect British law should be brought into line with the Netherlands?

Statutory waiting times: 144 Scottish respondents agree with this proposal. Again, I will highlight the weighted language: “to ensure that the mother has had enough time to consider all of the options available to her”. Other situations may include: needing to end the pregnancy before an abusive partner causes further harm; preventing the woman from health risks; the cost of visiting a doctor, undergoing the procedure and returning home – to name only a few. Also, the use of the term ‘mother’ is emotive and unprofessional in seeking unbiased results from polling.

Furthermore, abortion is available on demand up to 24 weeks gestation in the Netherlands, whereas in the UK it is a criminal offence unless authorised by two doctors. Abortions in the Netherlands are cost-free. They also have one of the lowest abortion rates in the world. Is that information in this question? No, it is not. Incidentally, the Netherlands have also pledged 10 million Euro to a fund to minimise the effects of the aforementioned Trump restrictions on international funding for women’s reproductive rights. This question compares lemons with stroopwafels.

Q7. Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

A woman considering abortion should have a legal right to independent counselling from a source that has no financial interest in her decision (159/6)

Women who want to continue with their pregnancies, but are under financial pressure to have an abortion, should be given more support to help them through their crisis (140/20)

Aborting babies because of their gender should be explicitly banned by the law (165/8 )

These questions appear harmless and the results of the polling reflect that. Those of us who know the motivations behind the poll can read between the lines – and polling questions should not have a subtext.

Q8. At present an unborn child with a disability can be aborted at any time during pregnancy, up to birth, whereas in most cases a healthy unborn child can only be aborted through to 24 weeks. Disability campaigners have described this differential in time limit as discriminatory. Would you support or oppose a change in law that would introduce an equal time limit for disability abortions of 24 weeks?

This question has a 93 net agree and 49 net oppose in Scotland. It’s a very contentious question – which disability activists have not achieved consensus on, and which again, ignores the rights of the woman carrying the fetus.

So, in conclusion:

Whilst across GB this was a decent sample size, the Scottish sample is too small to offer any realistic analysis of views. Additionally, the questions are loaded, are weighted in favour of those who commissioned the poll, and seek to manipulate the respondents. I’m astonished at ComRes in carrying out such biased polling. In the era of ‘fake news’ this is amongst the fakest.

Verdict: Codswallop


[1] I asked my facebook friends by the way and 100% of respondents agreed that a woman should have the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. It’s about as rigorous a poll as this ComRes poll.

[2] I have indicated the Net agree and disagree figures after the questions, Don’t Knows have been discounted.


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Access to Abortion: Situating Scotland in the Western WorldAccess to Abortion: Situating Scotland in the Western World This paper describes the different legal and regulatory contexts for abortion healthcare in Scotland and in other European and western nations.

Our Bodies, Our Choice: The Case for a Scottish Approach to AbortionOur Bodies, Our Choice: The Case for a Scottish Approach to Abortion The devolution of abortion law as part of the Scotland Act 2016 also provides Scotland with the opportunity to develop a Scottish approach to women’s reproductive rights, incorporating improved, modernised and standardised service provision underpinned by a progressive devolved legal framework.

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