Exploring the multifaceted opinions about abortion in South Africa

Abortion, an issue that sparks intense debate in many countries, gives rise to a diverse spectrum of viewpoints and emotions. Gaining insight into the ever-shifting terrain of abortion rights, attitudes, and trends illuminates societal views and the evolution of perspectives. Across 29 countries, a prevailing trend emerges: a majority supports the legalisation of abortion, at least in most cases.

Abortion was first legalised in South Africa by the 1975 Abortion and Sterilization Act (Act No. 2 of 1975), allowing pregnancy termination in cases where the pregnancy endangered the life or health of the mother or resulted from rape or incest. A transformative change came on 1 February 1997, when the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act (Act 92 of 1996) replaced the previous law, reshaping the country's abortion regulations.

Worldwide opinions regarding the legality of abortion fluctuate, contingent on the particular circumstances. On a global country average, 56% of people advocate for the legalisation of abortion, contrasted with 28% who endorse its prohibition. When focusing on South Africa, the margin is much narrower: 45% of online citizens hold the belief that abortion should be legal, compared to 39% who assert that it should be illegal.

Looking at how this data is broken down: 21% advocate for unrestricted legality, 24% favour legality in most cases, whereas 21% lean towards illegality in most cases, and 18% stand for total prohibition.

support for abortion legal in south africa and global country

The extensive Ipsos survey comprised 29 countries and 23,248 adults under the age of 75, conducted through Ipsos' Global Advisor online survey platform, from June 23 to July 7, 2023. The study mainly reveals the prevalence of support for abortion, particularly in Europe. Notably, in Sweden, a majority (61%) affirm that abortion should be legal in all cases, with an additional 26% supporting legality in most cases.

support for abortion legality abortion should be illegal abortion should be legal

Opposition to abortion

Among the 29 surveyed countries, only five - Indonesia, Malaysia, Colombia, Brazil, and Peru - report a higher proportion of people opposing the legalisation of abortion than those in favour. Among these, Indonesia stands out as the most resolutely against abortion. A significant majority (74%) of Indonesians believe abortion should be illegal, with an even split of 37% supporting its prohibition in all cases and another 37% in most cases. A fifth (22%) in Indonesia hold the view that abortion should be legal, and within this segment, only 1% advocate for complete legality in all cases.

Indonesia stands as the sole nation within the survey exhibiting a disparity of over 50 percentage points between those opposing and those supporting the issue. Termination of a pregnancy in the country is only legal as a result of rape or in cases of risk to a woman’s health.

The Generational and Gender divide

On a global level a higher proportion of women think abortion should be legal compared to men (59% vs. 52%), with 30% of women thinking it should be legal in all cases, while 23% of men share the same perspective. Similarly, South African opinions show the same trend with 54% of women agreeing that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, in contrast to 38% of men.

One-third of men on a global country average (33%) believe abortion should be illegal, with 20% opposing it in most cases and 13% opposing it in all cases, compared to 25% of women (15% who oppose it in most cases and 10% who oppose it in all cases).

gender disparity in abortion perspectives

Looking at support for abortion through a generational lens, Baby Boomers, often (superficially) regarded as a more “conservative” cohort, present the highest favourability (62% global country average and 51% in South Africa). In contrast, the lowest support is found among Gen X South Africans, with only 42% agreeing that abortions should be legal in all or most cases.

generational disparity in abortion perspectives

When should abortion be legal?

When considering the circumstances under which abortion should be legally permissible, the scenario in which a woman's life or health is endangered garners the highest level of support. On a global country average nearly eight out of ten (78%) believe that abortion should be legal in these cases (76% in South Africa). This viewpoint is most pronounced in Sweden (92%) and France (90%), while India shows the lowest level of support (52%).

Regarding cases involving rape, a significant global consensus emerges, with 72% advocating for the legality of abortion. Within South Africa, 65% express agreement, while a notable 19% hold the opposing viewpoint. Markedly, Indonesia stands as an outlier; it is the only country where a larger proportion of people (50%) oppose the legality of abortion in instances of rape compared to those in favour (32%).

There is comparatively less support for cases in which a baby will be born with severe disabilities or health issues, with two-thirds (65%) indicating their approval. France and Hungary stand out as the countries most in favour, with 84% and 82% support, respectively. In South Africa, just more than half agree with this standpoint.

when should abortions be legal

Differing views on abortion legalisation across pregnancy stages

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, there's considerable global variation in gestational limits. While countries that permit abortion upon request usually have a 12-week limit, many of them also allow abortion in a range of situations after this threshold.

When considering the legality of abortions for women at various pregnancy stages, a notable disparity in agreement becomes evident. On average across the 29 countries surveyed, 60% of people support the legalisation of abortion during the first 6 weeks of pregnancy (53% in South Africa).

However, when it comes to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, the consensus shifts, with only 25% in favour of legality (compared to 12% in South Africa).

abortion legalisation across pregnancy stages

Should illegal abortions be penalised?

Probing the issue of responsibility in cases of illegal abortion, a prevalent viewpoint emerges; people are more likely to feel the woman undergoing the abortion should not be subject to penalties. Globally, nearly half (47%) express this sentiment, whereas one-third (33%) thinks that she should face penalties. Interestingly, the perspective shifts when focusing on South Africa, where the dynamics are reversed: 35% are of the opinion that she should avoid penalties, while 49% assert that she should be penalised.

However, both on a global scale and within South Africa, there exists a prevailing tendency among people to believe that individuals who either conducted the illegal abortion or were engaged in organising it should be subjected to punishment.

should illegal abortions be penalised

About the study

These are the findings of a 29-country Ipsos survey conducted June 23 – July 7, 2023, among 23,248 adults aged 21-74 in Indonesia and Singapore, 20-74 in Thailand, 18-74 in the United States, Canada, the Republic of Ireland, Malaysia, South Africa, and Turkey, and 16-74 in other countries, via Ipsos’s Global Advisor online survey platform.

The sample consists of approximately 2,000 individuals in Japan, 1,000 individuals in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Mexico, Singapore, Spain, and the U.S., and 500 individuals in Argentina, Belgium, Chile, Colombia, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, and Turkey.

The sample in India consists of approximately 2,200 individuals, of whom approximately 1,800 were interviewed face-to-face and 400 were interviewed online.

The samples in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the U.S. can be taken as representative of these countries’ general adult population under the age of 75.

The samples in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, and Turkey are more urban, more educated, and/or more affluent than the general population. The survey results for these markets should be viewed as reflecting the views of the more “connected” segment of their population.

Methodology India’s sample represents a large subset of its urban population – social economic classes A, B and C in metros and tiers 1-3 town classes across all four zones.

The data is weighted so that each market’s sample composition best reflects the demographic profile of the adult population according to the most recent census data

“The Global Country Average” reflects the average result of all the countries and markets where the survey was conducted that year. It has not been adjusted to the population size of each country or market and is not intended to suggest a total result.

Where results do not sum to 100 or the ‘difference’ appears to be +/-1 more/less than the actual, this may be due to rounding, multiple responses or the exclusion of don't knows or not stated responses.

The precision of Ipsos online polls is calculated using a credibility interval with a poll of 1,000 accurate to +/- 3.5 percentage points and of 500 accurate to +/- 4.8 percentage points. For more information on Ipsos’s use of credibility intervals, please visit the Ipsos website.

The publication of these findings abides by local rules and regulations.