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Birth Control Still Tops List of Morally Acceptable Issues

Birth Control Still Tops List of Morally Acceptable Issues

Story Highlights

  • Birth control, drinking alcohol and divorce most widely acceptable
  • Adultery, cloning humans, suicide, and polygamy largely viewed as wrong
  • Declines in sentiment that wearing animal fur, pornography, animal cloning are OK

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Using birth control, drinking alcohol and getting a divorce remain the most broadly accepted personal moral behaviors in the United States, out of a list of 21 measured in Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs poll. Conversely, extramarital affairs, cloning humans, suicide and polygamy are viewed most broadly by Americans as morally wrong behaviors.

Americans’ views of the moral acceptability of 21 issues. Birth control tops the list, with 92% saying it’s acceptable.

All but five of these behaviors have been measured since the early 2000s, and Americans have increasingly taken a more liberal view on many of them since then. The latest reading, from a May 1-12 poll, shows that at least 60% of Americans find 10 of the behaviors to be morally acceptable. In addition to birth control (92%), alcohol use (79%), and divorce (77%), sex between unmarried men and women (71%), gambling (68%), smoking marijuana (65%), embryonic stem cell research (64%), having a baby outside of marriage (64%), gay or lesbian relations (63%) and the death penalty (60%) round out that list.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are seven behaviors that fewer than four in 10 Americans deem morally acceptable, including teenage sex (38%), pornography (37%), cloning animals (31%), polygamy (18%), suicide (17%), cloning humans (12%) and extramarital affairs (9%).

The issues that divide Americans most closely are buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur, doctor-assisted suicide, medical testing on animals and abortion. On each, the gap between "morally acceptable" and "morally wrong" views is less than 10 percentage points.

Changes in Moral Acceptability Since Last Year

Although Americans' views on the morality of most of the issues measured stayed relatively steady compared with last year, there were several notable changes:

  • The percentage of Americans who say buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur is morally acceptable has fallen seven points since last year to 53%, the new historical low for the measure by one point.

  • Two of the behaviors, cloning animals and pornography, which hit their high points in moral acceptability last year, have settled back in line with the previous trends.

  • Sex between an unmarried man and woman is at its highest point in the Gallup trend, edging up two points to 71%.

  • Americans' views that divorce is morally acceptable have risen 10 points since 2012 to 77% and are currently the highest they have been.

Ideology Continues to Divide Americans on Moral Issues

As in past Gallup research, Americans' perspectives on the morality of different behaviors are strongly influenced by their own ideology, and some of the issues measured are particularly polarizing. Abortion, which has been in the news recently as a number of states have moved to restrict or ban abortions, remains the most divisive of the issues, with just 23% of conservatives vs. 73% of liberals considering it morally acceptable.

Moral Acceptability of Issues, by Ideology
% Saying it is morally acceptable
Very conservative/Conservative Very liberal/Liberal Difference
% % pct. pts.
Abortion 23 73 50
Gay or lesbian relations 45 81 36
Doctor-assisted suicide 36 72 36
Sex between an unmarried man and woman 54 87 33
Embryonic stem cell research 51 84 33
Smoking marijuana 49 82 33
Having a baby outside of marriage 49 79 30
Pornography 23 53 30
Gambling 54 84 30
Sex between teenagers 27 54 27
Divorce 67 91 24
Death penalty 66 46 20
Suicide 9 28 19
Cloning animals 25 42 17
Polygamy 10 26 16
Buying and wearing clothes made of animal fur 61 45 16
Drinking alcohol 74 89 15
Married men and women having an affair 4 18 14
Medical testing on animals 55 47 8
Cloning humans 11 16 5
Birth control 90 93 3
GALLUP, May 1-12, 2019

Of the 21 issues tested in this poll, 13 are considered morally acceptable by majorities of liberals, while nine are viewed as acceptable to majorities of conservatives. Although there is considerable overlap between the two lists, seven issues are deemed acceptable by a majority of liberals but less than half of conservatives: abortion, gay or lesbian relations, doctor-assisted suicide, smoking marijuana, having a baby outside of marriage, pornography, and sex between teenagers. Just three issues are viewed as morally acceptable by a majority of conservatives but less than half of liberals: the death penalty, buying and wearing clothes made of animal fur, and medical testing on animals.

Meanwhile, conservatives and liberals are broadly united in their belief that five behaviors are morally wrong: suicide, cloning animals, cloning humans, polygamy, and extramarital affairs.

Bottom Line

There has been little movement since last year in Americans' views of the moral acceptability of a range of issues, as birth control, drinking alcohol and divorce remain the most acceptable, and cloning humans and extramarital affairs are least acceptable.

A strong ideological split remains across many of the issues, but none is as divisive as abortion. As some states move to limit or restrict abortions, debate around this issue will likely only get more intense.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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