Public opinion on induced abortion, comparison in Western Europe

Building upon the paper written by Jelen et al. (1993) that I wrote about a few days ago, I’d like to bring to your attention a more recent paper by Dutch researchers. ((Desclaration of interest: I personally know and work with most of the authors of this paper. Thereby, please don’t regard this blog as neutral, or possibly critical, review, but rather as a — hopefully — interesting perspective and notification of fascinating research.)) It also addresses attitudes toward abortion in Western Europe, but does so in a rather more advanced manner. As might be expected from an article written 15 years later, much developments have been made in the research on public opinion regarding induced abortion, both on a theoretical level, as well as on a methodological level. Let’s take a look at the outcomes of those improvements.

The authors state three main mechanisms on which the formation of attitudes toward induced abortion is based. At first, it is known that people adjust their opinion to ruling legislation in the country they live in. Secondly, based on the seminal work by Émile Durkheim, the authors state that in general people adjust their norms (and thereby attitudes) on topics to the norms prevalent in the (intermediary) groups they are a member of. Thirdly, previous research found that people tend to adjust their opinion to what is commonly thought to be good, or commonly done, in the ‘public domain’. They refer to this as the ‘marketplace of opinions and behaviour’.

Based on these three fundamental mechanisms, several interesting hypotheses are formulated, of which I will name only a few. Generally, it is expected that due to educational expansion people have become more liberal between 1981 and 2000. This is also, to some extend, expected due to a general trend toward more liberal legislation of induced abortion in Western Europe during the last few decades. Most churches object against (the possibility of) induced abortion, with the Catholic church expressing the most pronounced pro-life stance. It is thus hypothesised that members of more strict churches will object against induced abortion more strongly. Regarding the ‘marketplace of opinions and behaviour’, it is expected that people will express more favourable opinions toward the possibility of abortion when living in a country with high abortion ratio’s.

The authors tested these (and other) expectations on 14 European countries, with a time-span between 1981 and 2000. This was done by performing multilevel regression analyses on data from the European Value Survey. Some of the findings that I find especially interesting, is that when one lives in a country with many non-religious people, one tends to have fewer objections against induced abortion. Also, when more induced abortions are performed in a country (measured by abortion ratio’s), people tend to have more liberal attitudes on this subject. The authors accounted for some causality issues by taking the abortion ratio measured two years prior to the measurement of the attitude. Also, it was found that while members of a church and frequent church attendants have relatively negative attitudes towards induced abortion (compared with non-members and infrequent attendants), this impact waned over time. No differences between Protestants and non-members were found. Finally, by taking into account several demographic variables, educational level and religious denomination of respondents, and different levels of religiousness and abortion ratio’s of countries, the authors were able to explain much of the between-country differences in attitudes towards abortion.


Ariana Need, Wout Ultee, Mark Levels, Marike van Tienen (2008). Mening over abortus in West-Europa, 1981-2000 Mens en Maatschappij, 83 (1), 5-22

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