The findings come from a major survey commissioned by the Belfast Telegraph and carried out by LucidTalk, members of the British Polling Council (BPC).
A weighted sample of 1,130 adults was surveyed between November 6 and 23; 90% were questioned by telephone and the rest interviewed face to face.
They were asked: “Free abortion is currently allowed in Northern Ireland where there is the likelihood of serious and long-term danger to a prospective mother’s mental or physical wellbeing if her pregnancy continues. Which, if any, of these statements do you agree with?”
The first of four options was: “Abortion should be available to any woman who chooses it after being counselled on alternatives.”
This is marginally more liberal than the situation which applies in the rest of the UK, where the approval of two doctors is required.
The results showed that 25.9% agreed with this proposition. The proportion agreeing was roughly the same across the two main religious groups (28.3% of Protestants and 27.8% of Catholics).
But support was markedly higher among all women surveyed (29.9%) than men (21.4%). It was higher among the young, 34.9% for 18-24-year-olds, and fell gradually through the age range until it reached a low of 20.4% for those over 65.
A second option was: “Abortion should be available for rape or incest victims who choose it after counselling.”
This was the specific category ruled out by Jim Wells, the DUP politician earmarked to take over as Health Minister. Some 18.6% of those surveyed agreed. This was most popular among women (19.4%) and those over 65 (22.7%).
The statement that: “This situation should be kept as it is” was endorsed by 26.9% of the population. However, the pollsters included those who did not express an opinion or who didn’t know in this group, effectively giving the status quo the benefit of the doubt.
A further substantial group (26.5%) believed that abortion should only be allowed “if the mother is likely to die if the pregnancy continues”. This would mark a tightening of current practice. The most restrictive option was that: “Abortion is no better than shooting a child in the head and should be treated as murder”. It was favoured by only 2% of the sample, all of them men.