Do three quarters of GPs support a reduction in the abortion limit?

9 October 2012

"3/4 of all GPs want a reduction from 24 weeks"

Nadine Dorries MP, Twitter, 5 October 2012

Abortion shot up the agenda in the run up to the Conservative Party Conference, after a number of Conservative MPs - including new Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt - signalled that they believe the current 24 week threshold is too high.

As the law stands, women in England, Wales and Scotland can request an abortion up to the 24th week of their pregnancy. Occasionally, under exceptional circumstances, abortions may be conducted after the 24 week limit. 

Backbencher Nadine Dorries is a long-time supporter of a reduction in the limit and has claimed that the majority of GPs also share this view. So where is the evidence?

Do GPs support a reduction in the limit?

We've been in touch with Ms Dorries' team and we're still waiting for a response pointing us towards the source for her claim. However, here's what we've managed to establish so far:

In 2007 Marie Stopes International surveyed 1,000 GPs and asked them for their opinions on how abortion is legislated. Almost two thirds (65%) of doctors said that they were in favour of reducing the 24 week limit; of those who supported a lowering of the threshold, 62% wanted the upper limit to remain within 20-23 weeks. 

Clearly this is a little way short of the proportion of doctors mentioned by Ms Dorries, and even then, there is reason to be a little cautious about how we understand this figure.

For example, Marie Stopes sent its survey to a random sample of 1,000 doctors. However only 690 of these GPs returned valid answers, and we don't know if the views expressed were typical of their colleagues that didn't reply. There's therefore an element of self-selection here: those GPs that did return their questionnaires could simply be those that held the strongest views on abortion.

In fact, Marie Stopes notes in an accompanying press release that its findings contradict other attempts to survey doctors' opinions on abortion, highlighting the fact that "a vote taken in 2005 by members attending the British Medical Association conference [found] 77 per cent supported the current limit." Once again, however, it's difficult to know the extent to which this reflects the wider opinions of their colleagues.

So where has the 'three quarters' figure come from?

The closest we came to Ms Dorries' statistic is the Christian Medical Fellowship's claim that three quarters of women would like to see a reduction in the abortion limit.

Although they point to a 2005 survey, there is actually more recent evidence to support this, such as a 2008 ComRes poll showing that 72% backed a tightening of restrictions on abortion.

However polls haven't shown a consistent consensus when it comes to abortion.

A pair of YouGov polls in 2011 and 2012 put women's support for a reduction in the upper limit at 46% and 49% respectively. 

So how do a polls on the same issue turn up some different results? If you dig a little deeper, you can notice some stark differences in the questions that each survey poses.

The YouGov poll asked: "Currently abortions are only legal up until the 24th week of pregnancy, except for cases of severe disability. Do you personally believe that the period during which a legal abortion can be performed should remain at 24 weeks, or should it be changed?"

(46% say that they are in favour of a decrease)

ComRes, in a poll commissioned by the Christian Institute, included in their question some detail of survival rates amongst babies born before 24 weeks: "In the last year for which figures are available, government statistics show that 52 babies survived having been born earlier than 24 weeks. At one specialist neo-natal unit in Britain, 5 out of 7 babies born at 22 weeks gestation survived. In light of this, do you think that the upper time limit for abortion should be kept at 24 weeks, increased, or decreased?"

(72% say that they are in favour of a decrease)

Is Ms Dorries' claim accurate?

We still don't know what Ms Dorries' is referring to when she claims that three quarters of GPs want to see a reduction in the abortion limit from 24 weeks. Based on the evidence we've seen, the closest we can get to this statistic is the 65% of GPs who reported their support for this move in the Marie Stopes survey.

There is some polling evidence to suggest that three quarters of women would back a reduction in the upper limit, although it's also clear that opinion polls are capable of producing widely varying results. As we've seen, the wording of a question has the potential to heavily influence the outcomes of a survey. 

Ms Dorries has said that she plans to re-introduce to Parliament her 2008 amendment that proposed a reduction in the abortion limit to 20 weeks. We hope that she'll be able to explain the basis for her claim before this issue is debated again in the House of Commons.

Once she does this, we'll be able to issue an update. However, for now, we'd treat the statistic with caution.

Flickr image courtesy of Odd_dog

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