Why are women more opposed to abortion?

Polls in recent years show that men support more liberal abortion laws than women – even among Catholics. Are they accurate, and if so what could explain the counterintuitive gender divide?

Women protest in Madrid against a draft bill on abortion that would restrict their reproductive rights. Photograph: Antonio Navia/Demotix/Corbis

It is often assumed that women support abortion rights while men seek to deny them – when Jeremy Hunt suggested reducing the legal abortion limit to 12 weeks, for example, The Telegraph remarked that his comments "could have an impact on the Conservatives’ attempts to boost their support among female voters". That makes it all the more surprising that so much of the abuse directed at Josie Cunningham, monstered for apparently considering an abortion in order to appear on Big Brother, came from women. But is the assumption correct in the first place?

Polling on abortion, as highlighted by UKPollingReport back in 2012, is pretty clear when it comes to the attitudes of men and women:

“Polls consistently show … that women are more likely than men to support a reduction on the abortion limit. In the 2011 YouGov poll 28% of men supported a reduction, 46% of women did. In the 2012 YouGov poll 24% of men supported a reduction, 49% of women did. In the Angus Reid poll 35% of men supported a reduction in the limit, 59% of women did. In the ICM poll 45% of men supported a reduction to 20 weeks, 59% of women did.”

Drilling down into the numbers doesn’t reveal anything untoward. YouGov’s 2012 poll suggests that slightly more men than women want to ban abortion completely (8% vs 5%), but the result isn’t statistically very significant, and the effect disappears in the Angus Reid poll (the question isn't asked in ICM's). The YouGov numbers are lower than those found by Angus Reid and ICM, but the gender differences are still consistent.

Other polls have appeared since that article, and they show the same thing. A 2013 YouGov poll on behalf of the University of Lancaster found 26% of men supporting a reduction or ban, versus 43% of women. Interestingly, 53% of women in that survey believed that life begins at conception, against 35% of men – not exactly "every sperm is sacred", but not too far off.

The difference even holds up when you poll Catholics. A second University of Lancaster survey carried out last autumn found that 40% of Catholic men supported a reduction or ban, against 57% of Catholic women. Exactly the same difference in percentage points that they found among the general population.

Single polls are always dubious of course, and small changes from poll to poll don’t usually mean a lot – they’re just random noise. The failure of many journalists to understand that is the reason we get headlines every week saying things like "Labour up 3 points" or "Labour down 2 points" instead of more accurate but less interesting ones such as, “voters still think basically the same thing they did three month ago.”

We’re not talking about small differences here or individual polls here though – we have multiple polls from multiple different polling companies, commissioned by a range of different interests over a decade. Sure there’s some noise and some variation over time, but a big difference remains no matter what. It looks pretty settled to me.

So around 24 to 35% of men want to put more restrictions on abortion, against 43 to 59% of women – a consistent gap of around 20 percentage points. That raises some pretty big implications, the most obvious being that if it were left to women to vote on the issue, with men out of the picture, there’s a good chance that the result would be in favour of restricting abortion. On the flip side, if only men voted, they’d almost certainly vote in favour of women’s reproductive rights.

Why should this be? The polls tell us very little – the people who commissioned them seem more interested in which policies people support than in why they support them. The only real clue is in the University of Lancaster’s finding that more women believe life begins at conception. It makes sense that if you believe that, you’re going to think twice about termination, but it still doesn't explain why more women think that in the first place.

Husband-and-wife economists George Akerlof and Janet Yellen touched on the problem in a famous (and controversial) 1996 paper on the impacts of new "reproductive technology" in the late 20th century. In it, they suggested that the availability of abortion changed men's attitudes to unplanned parenthood, as neatly expressed by an unnamed "internet contributor": "Since the decision to have the child is solely up to the mother, I don't see how both parents have responsibility to that child."

Where prior to the 1960s men would have felt culturally bound to "do the right thing" by sexual partners who became pregnant, medicine now provided them with a convenient get-out clause. It is therefore not that surprising that they'd resist any changes that would threaten that.

As for women, there’s the heavy weight of centuries of cultural baggage and social expectation. Women today are still defined in terms of sex and motherhood, and "radicals" who reject that ideal are dismissed as unfeminine, cruel or somehow defective. "I don't want to have a baby" remains a significant statement, liable to invite scrutiny. A paper on the experiences of childless women in Australia is titled, "‘Unnatural’, ‘Unwomanly’, ‘Uncreditable’ and ‘Undervalued’."

Magazines and newspapers enjoy nothing more than making examples of women who sacrificed motherhood for their careers and later regretted it. They idolise "role models" such as Kate Middleton or the Queen, ghostly beings devoid of opinion or sentiment whose sole purpose in life is to be impregnated by the royal blue sperm of a princely pecker. That is what a woman is supposed to be – a declawed pet, mind and body airbrushed until nothing is left but a smiling womb. When we breed women to breed, it’s not surprising that so many balk at the idea of abortion.

If Kate Middleton had chosen to terminate her pregnancy, it would have been one of the biggest political statements of the 21st century – the 9/11 of the culture wars (and a catastrophic blow to Britain’s tedious bunting industry). She wouldn’t of course, and she probably couldn’t if she wanted to. Britain simply wouldn’t tolerate it, and that says a lot about how far attitudes to women and reproduction have really come in the last 60 years.

So which is it? Internalised sexism, men's liberation, fundamentally different ideas about the point at which life begins, or something else entirely? I doubt only one factor is at work, but it seems that we lack a definitive answer. And that's a shame, because in the ongoing battle of ideas it seems like a very important question to ask.

Source: The Guardian (Martin Robbins) 30/04/2014