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Changing One's Gender Is Sharply Contentious Moral Issue

Changing One's Gender Is Sharply Contentious Moral Issue

Story Highlights

  • 46% say changing one's gender is morally acceptable, 51% morally wrong
  • Birth control, divorce most likely to be viewed as morally acceptable
  • Extramarital affairs, cloning humans most often seen as morally wrong

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Gallup's most recent gender identity data find 0.6% of U.S. adults identify as transgender; that is, the gender with which they identify is different from the one they were assigned at birth. Changing one's gender identity is sharply contentious among Americans, who are slightly more likely to say it is morally wrong (51%) than morally acceptable (46%).

There are significant demographic disparities in Americans' views, including by gender, age and political ideology. Women are more likely than men to view switching genders as morally acceptable, as are younger adults more likely than older adults. The large majority of those who identify as politically liberal (78%) think being transgender is acceptable from a moral standpoint, and they are more than three times as likely as political conservatives (23%) to say as much.

Americans' Views of the Moral Acceptability of Changing One's Gender
Regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, for each one, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general it is morally acceptable or morally wrong. -- Changing one's gender
Morally acceptable Morally wrong
% %
U.S. adults 46 51
Men 43 56
Women 50 47
18-29 55 43
30-49 51 47
50-64 45 52
65 and older 34 64
Political ideology
Liberal 78 21
Moderate 48 48
Conservative 23 76
Gallup, May 3-18, 2021

Gallup has tracked Americans' views of the morality of a range of social issues since 2001. The latest update, conducted May 3-18, includes 20 issues, 16 of which have been tracked since the early 2000s. The gender question was asked for the first time this year.

Americans View 11 of 20 Issues as Morally Acceptable

A majority of Americans consider 11 of the 20 issues morally acceptable. The use of birth control ranks at the top of the list, with 90% of U.S. adults saying it is acceptable.

Broad majorities also view divorce (79%) and sex between an unmarried man and woman (73%) as acceptable moral behaviors. Likewise, roughly two-thirds of Americans see gay or lesbian relations, gambling, having a baby outside of marriage, and medical research using human embryonic stem cells as morally acceptable.

Fewer, though still more than half of U.S. adults, think the death penalty, buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur, doctor-assisted suicide and medical testing on animals are morally acceptable.

Abortion, which has long been a wedge issue, is the only one of the 20 with an equal split between those who believe it is morally acceptable (47%) and those who say it is morally wrong (46%). In the past, more Americans typically considered abortion morally wrong than morally acceptable.

As is the case with views of changing one's gender, a slim majority think sex between teenagers is morally wrong, while the remaining six issues are viewed as morally wrong by larger majorities of Americans. Nearly nine in 10 U.S. adults believe extramarital affairs and cloning humans are morally wrong, and just over three-quarters view polygamy and suicide the same way. Roughly six in 10 think cloning animals and pornography are wrong from a moral perspective.

America's Views of Moral Acceptability of Issues

Stacked bar chart. Of 20 issues measured, 11 are considered morally acceptable by majorities of Americans -- birth control, getting a divorce, sex between an unmarried man and woman, gambling, smoking marijuana, gay or lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage and medical research using human embryonic stem cells, the death penalty, medical testing on animals, buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur and doctor-assisted suicide. Views on abortion are split nearly evenly and the remaining seven issues are viewed by majorities of Americans as morally wrong: extramarital affairs, cloning humans, suicide, polygamy, cloning animals, pornography and teenage sex.

Current perceptions about the morality of the issues tested are similar to readings in recent years. However, the latest data includes several notable findings from a historic perspective:

  • The percentages who say three of the issues -- abortion, divorce and gay or lesbian relations -- are morally acceptable are the highest recorded by Gallup, all by two percentage points.

  • Likewise, the moral acceptability of two issues are the highest on record by one point -- sex between an unmarried man and woman and having a baby outside of marriage.

Generally speaking, Americans' attitudes have become more morally permissive on most of these issues over the past two decades.

Political Ideology Divides Views of Morality of Nearly All Issues

Americans' perspectives on morality are strongly related to (and perhaps influenced by) their own political ideology. The most polarizing issues are changing one's gender and abortion with 55- and 54- point gaps, respectively, in liberals' and conservatives' views of them as morally acceptable.

There are significant ideological differences on all issues but medical testing on animals. Even so, majorities of liberals and conservatives are on the same side of the issue in 10 of 20 cases. On almost all of the rest, liberals find the practice morally acceptable, while Republicans disagree.

  • Agreement on moral acceptability: The issues with majority-level agreement on moral acceptability among liberals and conservatives are: birth control, divorce, gambling, sex between an unmarried man and woman, and medical testing on animals. Majorities of liberals and conservatives also agree that several behaviors are morally wrong -- extramarital affairs, cloning animals or humans, suicide, polygamy and pornography.

  • Liberal majorities: Majorities of liberals but less than half of conservatives view some issues as morally acceptable -- changing one's gender, abortion, gay or lesbian relations, medical research using human embryonic stem cells, doctor-assisted suicide, sex between teenagers, pornography and cloning animals.

  • Conservative majorities: Majorities of conservatives but less than half of liberals believe two issues are morally acceptable -- the death penalty and buying or wearing clothing made of animal fur.

Moral Acceptability of Issues, by Ideology
% Saying it is morally acceptable
Liberal Conservative Difference*
% % pct. pts.
Changing one's gender 78 23 +55
Abortion 73 19 +54
Gay or lesbian relations 91 48 +43
Medical research using human embryonic stem cells 80 44 +36
Doctor-assisted suicide 74 38 +36
Sex between teenagers 62 27 +35
Having a baby outside of marriage 84 50 +34
Pornography 58 24 +34
Suicide 38 9 +29
Sex between an unmarried man and woman 86 58 +28
Divorce 94 67 +27
Cloning animals 51 26 +25
Polygamy 33 10 +23
Married men and women having an affair 18 6 +12
Gambling 73 61 +12
Birth control 95 83 +12
Cloning humans 19 9 +10
Medical testing on animals 53 54 -1
Buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur 48 61 -13
Death penalty 36 71 -35
*Liberal minus conservative
Gallup, May 3-18, 2021

Bottom Line

Americans' views of the morality of 20 issues are little changed since last year, though from a longer-term perspective, Americans' views have shifted significantly toward more permissive attitudes. Birth control and divorce continue to be the most morally acceptable to society and extramarital affairs, and cloning humans the most morally wrong. The new addition to the list, changing one's gender, is nearly as divisive as abortion, which has typically been the most contentious issue. And the ideological divide on these two issues is the greatest seen in the poll. Transgender issues only recently emerged as a prominent topic in society, and it remains to be seen whether the public's views about changing one's gender will evolve in the way that their opinions of gays and lesbians did, or if they stay as polarized as abortion.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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