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Are Out-of-Wedlock Births Morally Acceptable?

by Heather Mason Kiefer, Contributing Editor

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than one-third of all babies in the United States are born to unmarried parents. But despite the prevalence of out-of-wedlock births, a sizable percentage of Americans believe that having a baby outside of marriage is morally wrong.

Gallup's May 2003 survey of moral values in the United States* found that 51% of U.S. adults believe having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable, but 46% believe it is morally wrong. The most recent data represent a shift in opinion among Americans -- a May 2002 Gallup Poll showed that 50% of Americans disapproved of out-of-wedlock births and 45% approved.

Religiosity and Marital Status

Religiosity, as measured by church attendance, shows the largest differences on this issue: Just 26% of weekly churchgoers approve of having a baby outside marriage, compared to 53% of nearly weekly churchgoers, and 71% of those who seldom or never attend church. Unmarried Americans are also a little more likely than married Americans to approve of having babies out of wedlock, 58% to 45%, respectively.

Political Ideology and Age

Large differences in moral acceptance are also influenced by political ideology, which is related to religiosity. Almost three-fourths (73%) of liberals feel having a baby out of wedlock is morally acceptable, compared to 55% of moderates, and just over one-third (38%) of conservatives. Differences also exist according to partisanship, but these are not as dramatic as those for ideology.

Acceptance decreases among older Americans as well. Sixty-four percent of those aged 18 to 29 think having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable, compared to 53% of 30- to 49-year-olds, 51% of those aged 50 to 64, and just 33% of those aged 65 and older.

Race and Gender

Race seems to have little bearing on views regarding this issue. Whites and nonwhites are about equally likely to feel that having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable -- 52% and 49%, respectively. However, results for this question do vary somewhat by gender. Forty-seven percent of men feel it is morally acceptable, compared to 55% of women.

Abortion Views

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the ideological divide on this issue, people with liberal views on specific social issues are also more likely to feel that having a baby outside marriage is acceptable. That effect includes views on abortion, despite the fact that abortion is an alternative to bearing an illegitimate child. Sixty-seven percent of people who are pro-choice approve of having a baby outside of marriage, compared to 35% of people who are pro-life.

Bottom Line

It is no surprise to find out that the younger, more liberal, and less religious people are, the more likely they are to say that out-of-wedlock births are morally acceptable. In many cases, the differences in opinion among demographic groups are extremely striking. It's clear that views about marriage and reproduction in the United States are still divergent and wide-ranging, which bodes more controversy in years to come on issues such as abortion, homosexual marriage, and adoption by homosexuals.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 5-7, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3%.


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