Abortion and Catholics — Who comes first in the race against nature?

- Written by Alexandru Baciu, Rianna Khanna, Milja Tammisto, Magdalena Laudage -

April 8, 2020 – Amsterdam NL


The Pro-life vs Pro-choice debate is and has been a central and popular debate within society, cultures, and religions for many years. Generally, religion plays an important role in influencing its particular followers; it has the power and ability to shape their views and beliefs. It is no secret that religion plays a big part in the acceptance or rejection of abortion. In fact, there have been several cases over the years in which religious figures justify their abortion beliefs through religion. Another important factor that plays a role in shaping people’s perceptions regarding abortion is the power of law. Implemented laws, whether for or against abortion, may to an extent also have an influence on the people’s perception of it.

The Roman Catholic Church which happens to be the world’s largest religious denomination has a fixed position regarding abortion, that is; it strictly forbids abortion no matter what the circumstances are, and this is openly known to the public. The basic belief the Church holds is that from the very moment of conception – it is a human life, and should have all the rights a person has. The Roman Catholic Church actively encourages the pro-life view and tries to instil this view in the Roman Catholic believers through blatantly expressing abortion as a sin. This view was also vocally expressed fairly recently by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church Pope Francis, in response to the abortion debate in May of 2019 as Alabama and a few other conservative states in the United States began setting bans against abortion. Francis publicly stated that abortion is not condoned and that in fact, abortion is like hiring a “Hitman”. Additionally, Francis went on to express that “Human life is sacred and inviolable and the use of prenatal diagnosis for selective purposes should be discouraged with strength,”.

Despite the stance, the Roman Catholics adopt on this topic, the law comes into play as well. Implementation of laws whether for or against abortion may influence people’s views and perceptions on abortion. It is interesting to note that some countries that are considered to have predominantly Catholic populations or in which Catholicism is the main religion have laws that in fact legalise abortion. The point to investigate here is how the Roman Catholics in different countries view abortion and whether the implementation of the laws either for or against it influences how they perceive it.

“I believe it is important to understand the relationship between the extent to which a country values their faith and the church, and how socially conservative it is. Traditionally, there are certain things a good (catholic) person of faith does and does not do. Consequentially, countries in which faith still plays a large role in a traditional sense as we see in many Latin American countries, more social conservatism can be found. In Europe, the more socially conservative countries of which many can be found in the east are those that are also seen to be the most religious and also the most catholic. These are also the countries that are the most opposed to topics such as abortion”. (Father Frank H, The Catholic Church of Düsseldorf.)


How did we do all this?

 For our data- analysis on Roman Catholics and Religion, the team decided to take a deep-dive into the world of an educational database, the World Value Survey (WVS). This database is run by a group of social scientists, who direct and design questionnaires reaching almost 100 countries ( which is up to 90% of the whole world’s population!). The questionnaires are conducted in what they call “waves ”, and the data collection and dissection of each wave takes place approximately in a four year period. The data from the latest wave, wave n:o 6 in 2010- 2014, is the one we used in our analysis to determine whether there is a correlation between the acceptance of abortion and religion (in our case individuals who identify with the religion of the Roman Catholics).

The WVS’ questionnaire “.. consists of 290 q290 questions and measuring cultural values, attitudes and beliefs towards gender, family, and religion, attitudes and experience of poverty, education, health, and security, social tolerance and trust, attitudes towards multilateral institutions, cultural differences and similarities between regions and societies.” (World Value Survey), so the work and the research is quite extensive. Lucky for us it meant that finding relevant data for our topic wasn’t made too difficult!

On top of the data- analysis we were lucky enough to arrange an interview with a priest located in Düsseldorf, who has experience in working with the Roman Catholic church for more than 40 years. One of our team members set up a phone interview with the german priest Father Frank H, who was kind enough to provide us new perspectives and information on the topic. As the interview was conducted in German, it was translated to English for coherence.

Not to forget the legal process behind abortion we used an online tool to look at abortion’s regulation across the globe, as the several variations of the terms in which one can make an abortion is vast.


Designing The Data!

We looked into two main survey questions concerning religion and abortion, where the questions were presented to the participants in separate occasions: “How justifiable is abortion?” and “How important is religion in life?”, out of which both were further divided into the category “religious denomination: Roman Catholics”. Based on the varying responses of the two questions, we were able to dive in and make some correlations between the data from four assigned countries (Poland, Colombia, Spain and, The Philippines) with the support of the two questions. The countries chosen for the data visualizations, illustrated on Google Sheets were determined based on a list of  “Countries With The Largest Roman Catholic Populations” by World Atlas.com. In the process of analysing the data, the countries were split into two, where the first half had accepted the law of legalizing abortion ( Poland and Spain) and the second half had not (The Philippines and Colombia).

The headlines of two data visualizations were adapted directly from the WVS’ survey questions without alterations. It is important to mention that we decided to tone down the wording from the questions on both of the surveys as follows: Measuring religion, the participants originally had the possibility to choose their response from a scale of “ very important, rather important, not very important and not important at all”. But in order to simplify our graph, responses towards “rather important” and “very important” have been merged into one. See figure 1. The same has been applied to answers targeting “not very important” and “not important at all”. The graph on abortion, allowed the participants to respond on a numeric scale from 1-10. The ends of the scales being 1 and 10  were labelled “never justifiable” and “always justifiable” respectively, and served as possible answers. We cut down the number of possible answers to five different answers (never justifiable-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7- 8, 9- Always justifiable) in order to again make the graph easier to comprehend. See figure 1.2.


Here’s What You Actually Came For:


Figure 1 

Figure 1.2

We found compelling results about the importance of religion and how justifiable abortion is deemed for the self-identified Roman Catholic people of the analysed countries, as shown in Fig.1 and Fig. 2. While results for the Philippines, Colombia, and Poland are higher than 80% on the scale of importance, Spain only presents a 38.2% importance of religion. This separation from the other countries seems to also be prominent in the other analysed variable, where Spain showcases the highest variation in opinions on the topic of abortion out of all the four analysed countries. Something particularly interesting we found was that Spain shows the least strong attitude against abortions, with 7.6% considering it never justifiable and 39.5% considering it always justifiable.

 Poland has also showcased a deviation from the pattern, presenting the highest percentage, 41.9%, in the middle point of the scale that measures the justifiability of abortion. These results point to a re-evaluation of the pre-conceptions about religious people and abortion. There are many factors that could clarify the current results. One of these factors is the geographical and geopolitical situation of the countries. Out of the chosen countries, Spain and Poland, the ones that have shown the most versatility and differentiation from the pre-conceived pattern of religious countries, are both European countries and members of the European Union. Although, it should be noted that further research must be made in order to unveil the multiple relations that could lead to this argument.

The other factor is the implementation of abortion laws in each country, and the religious population’s view on the law. Using the interactive online tool from The Center for Reproductive Rights’ official website, we have analysed each of our four chosen countries from the perspective of their current implemented abortion laws. The tool uses 5 variables, measuring with a scale from the complete prohibition of abortion to abortion on request (where the gestational limits vary), having the permission of abortion on basis of health as the middle point of the scale. Using this tool, we have compared the abortion laws of each chosen country with our data findings and found several correlations in regards to the relation between the religious population’s view on abortion and the current implemented laws on abortion. One important factor to take into consideration is that our statistics were gathered using the World Value Survey’s 6th wave (2010-2014) option, while the current laws of each country have been adopted at different times. Nevertheless, this allows us to see how and whether the perception of religious people on abortion has influenced changes in the implementation of abortion laws, or if there is even a correlation.

An interesting observation we found was that out of the four analysed countries, Spain is the only one that has a law that allows abortion on request with a gestational limit of 14 weeks, in the case of minors needing a parental authorisation. This makes it the furthest right on the scale and fits with the data that we have gathered about the population’s perception on abortion justifiability. Spain has showcased the biggest variation of opinions on the justifiability of abortion out of all the countries analysed and has also presented the lowest percentage on the analysis of the importance of religion, with only 32%. Spain has also adopted the current abortion law in 2010, which fits perfectly with the time the data we have used from the surveys has been collected, an indication that the law indeed may reflect the population’s perception of abortion.

The Philippines has also shown strong correlations between the collected data and the abortion laws, but in a different direction from Spain. Currently, the Philippines prohibits altogether abortion in an act from their Constitution which has remained unchanged since 1987. The current ban on abortion appears to correlate with the high percentage of the roman catholic population of the country who deem religion important (97%), and their view on the justifiability of abortion, where 54% of the population believed that abortion is never justifiable.

Poland and Colombia are in the same category when talking about their abortion laws, allowing abortion for the preservation of health, a category that involves different other conditions that differ from country to country. But in the case of Colombia, the law of abortion does not seem to perfectly correlate with the data we gathered about the population’s view on abortion. Although the law permits abortion only in cases of rape, incest or fetal impairment, in the survey that analysed the justifiability of abortion, Colombia showed the highest percentage of people that deemed it never justifiable (76.2%). With all that in mind, the law of the country is still fairly conservative, and therefore still shows a connection between the religious population’s view on abortion and the current abortion law.


Insider Insights

In order to make sense of these findings, we conducted a brief interview with Father Frank H. who has been a member of the Roman Catholic order in Düsseldorf, Germany for over 40 years. When interviewed on the topic and presented with the results of the data, he emphasised that he was not an expert on the topic of abortion as his church and himself had viewed the topic openly for many years now. We found this quite interesting as we were not expecting the Church that follows the Roman Catholic order to have such views. Father Frank H., however, pointed out that according to him he strongly believes that the impact that faith and the Church have in an individual country, not only impacts the catholic communities’ views and attitude, but also the politics and laws.

According to Father Frank H., there is a clear explanation as to why certain countries such as Spain show more tolerance towards the topic of abortion. The economic and (consequently) social climate of a country. In Spain, people have easy access to education, and circumstances such as starvation and poverty are not something that is associated with it. Whilst the unemployment rate may be high, the poverty rate in comparison to countries such as Colombia is incomparable. “People rely on education, on science to decide what is important or what they can do to improve their life, not religion,” he says. Religion still plays a role as it gives a sense of belonging, culture, and morals, and that more so in other countries such as for example Sweden, but it by far does not play as an essential role as it does in other countries such as the Philippines and Colombia. “I do not know the numbers, but take a look at the contrasting economies of the four countries. Of course, you also have the role of the media, the freedom of speech, the political climate,” he says. “Consider the freedom of the press, the politics in power and the role of the church they impose on their people”. Abortion is just one of many topics where the role of the church and faith within a culture determines the level to which the general population receives it, he says. He describes it all as “a complex web of economics, politics, and beliefs”.


The Final Take

To wrap it up, the analysed data reveals a new perspective on abortion views of religious Roman Catholic countries, but most importantly – it shows the place that religion has holds a presence in the current social and cultural discussions of the discussed countries. The views on religion and abortion proved to be more complex and varied than the preconceptions about the religious population of countries such as Spain or Poland. However, looking at the adopted abortion laws of these countries has shed a different light on the data. The time wave used for collecting the data (2010-2014) coincides with the latest updates in each of the chosen countries, regarding abortion laws.  We have found out that the perceptions of the analysed religious population of each country reflect the current implemented laws of abortion for each country. To say it plainly, the abortion laws of each country appear to reflect the views of the Catholic population of the countries. This resolution fits with the main points of Father Franklin in our interview – that religion still plays a big role in shaping the opinion on certain topics in a culture – which is reflected by the data and the abortion laws.

It is important to note that different variations in opinions and beliefs of the religious population of the countries could potentially be explained through additional factors, such as age groups, economic and geopolitical  status and/or the level of education among many more. These factors may also be influential to an extent in shaping people’s perceptions regarding abortion. Nonetheless, the use of the abortion laws has proven to be enough for revealing that the religious populations of these countries still hold the influence to shape the general opinion of abortion, and its legal application and consequences.



Wave 1: 1981- 1984, Wave 2: 1990-1994, Wave 3: 1995-1998, Wave 4: 1999p- 2004, Wave 5 2005- 2009, Wave 6: 2010- 2014. Wave 7: 2015- 2018 (currently in progress)


Posted in Data Journalism 2020