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Approval of Out-of-Wedlock Births Growing in U.S.

Approval of Out-of-Wedlock Births Growing in U.S.

Story Highlights

  • Six in 10 (61%) say having a baby outside of marriage is OK
  • Up from 54% in 2012 and 45% in 2002
  • Most subgroups more accepting than in past

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Sixty-one percent of Americans say having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable, a new high by one percentage point and the third straight year that roughly six in 10 Americans have sanctioned this once frowned-upon behavior. In 2002, when Gallup first asked the question, more Americans said having a baby outside of wedlock was morally wrong than said it was morally acceptable.

Americans' Views of the Morality of Having a Baby Outside of Marriage

The 16-point increase in perceived moral acceptability of having a baby outside of marriage is the second-largest increase among the items tracked in Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs poll since its inception, behind only the 23-point jump in moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle made having a child outside of marriage a political issue in 1992, when he famously criticized the decision of fictional TV news anchor Murphy Brown to have a child. Over the past two decades, the percentage of children born to unmarried parents has increased -- and as this trend has continued, Americans have become increasingly comfortable with out-of-wedlock births from a moral perspective.

Gallup's trend on the moral acceptability of out-of-wedlock births shows three distinct periods of support over the last 14 years. The first period, from 2002 to 2004, showed an evenly divided American public, with an average 48% of Americans saying that having a baby outside of marriage was morally acceptable and 47% saying it was morally wrong.

During the second period, from 2005 to 2012, there was a notable shift to the point where a clear majority, averaging 53%, sanctioned out-of-wedlock births.

In the last three years, there has been a further increase -- to an average 60% of Americans -- saying it is morally acceptable to have a baby outside of marriage.

Growing Social Liberalism a Factor in Greater Acceptance of Out-of-Wedlock Births

Nearly every major demographic or attitudinal subgroup has shown a significant increase since 2004 in their belief that out-of-wedlock births are morally acceptable. Those changes are detailed in a table at the end of this article.

But there is one subgroup -- Americans who identify their views on social issues as "conservative" -- whose views on out-of-wedlock births have changed little over the past 14 years. Between 2002 and 2004, an average of 35% of social conservatives said having a baby outside of marriage was morally acceptable. Currently, 38% hold this view.

By comparison, over the same period, there has been a 14-point increase among social moderates, to 65%, and a 12-point increase among social liberals, to 77%.

Belief That Having a Baby Outside of Marriage Is Morally Acceptable, \nby Self-Identified Views on Social Issues

The growing acceptance of out-of-wedlock births is not just a result of attitudinal change within ideological subgroups, but also of the changes in the size of those groups in the U.S. adult population. From 2002 to 2004, 37% of Americans said they were conservative on social issues. That percentage has dipped to 34% in the last three years, including a record-low 31% this year. Meanwhile, the percentage of social liberals has expanded from 24% in 2002 through 2004 to 30% in the last three years, including 31% this year.

Implications

Americans have grown more liberal in their views on a wide variety of moral issues over the past 15 years. Their greater acceptance of parents having children outside of marriage is one of the bigger changes in moral attitudes during this time, along with Americans' more tolerant views of gay and lesbian relations and of sex between unmarried men and women, which has increased from 53% to 68% since 2001.

The increase in perceived morality of out-of-wedlock births reflects the changing social mores of the U.S., and also perhaps an acknowledgment of the reality that more children are being born to unmarried couples. But the greater number of out-of-wedlock births is not necessarily a positive development for the United States, because babies born to unmarried parents are much more likely to grow up in poverty than those born to married parents. This is largely because out-of-wedlock births are much more common among lower-income Americans than upper-income Americans, and it may speak as much to the greater likelihood that a married household has two incomes as to the benefits of marriage per se. However, a growing body of research indicates that -- whatever the underlying causes -- children in two-parent households tend to have better academic and emotional outcomes later in life than those born in single-parent households.

It is unclear to what extent Americans are aware of the effects of children being born into single-parent households, and whether greater awareness of those effects might influence how people perceive the morality of unmarried parents having children.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted May 6-10, 2015, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

Belief That Having a Baby Outside of Marriage Is Morally Acceptable, by Subgroup

Gallup


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