Most Divisive Moral Issues Revealed in Poll

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Matters of birth and death are most likely to pit Americans against one another, according to new Gallup poll results finding that doctor-assisted suicide, abortion and having a baby out of wedlock are the most divisive issues in the United States.

According to the poll results, released Tuesday (May 31), 45 percent of Americans find doctor-assisted suicide morally acceptable, while 48 percent say it is morally wrong. Abortion was the second-most divided issue, with 39 percent saying ending a pregnancy is acceptable and 51 percent disapproving. Having a baby outside of marriage rounded out the top three divisive issues, with a 13-percent gap between the 54 percent who say it's okay and the 41 percent who say no way.

Attitudes toward these issues have remained fairly stable over the past 10 years, according to earlier Gallup results. Democrats mostly accept assisted suicide, abortion and babies out of marriage, while Republicans mostly reject all three.

Where Americans agree

Other controversial issues have greater support one way or another. Americans are for wearing fur, gay and lesbian relationships and medical testing on animals by 17 percentage points apiece, with 55 percent or 56 percent saying those actions are moral. Sex between an unmarried man and woman is fine with 60 percent of Americans, but 62 percent say cloning is wrong. Another 62 percent disapprove of research using human embryos.

About two-thirds of Americans say gambling and pornography are wrong, while 65 percent are okay with the death penalty. Sixty-nine percent say divorce is okay and 23 percent disapprove.

Americans resoundingly rejected the other issues examined by the Gallup poll. Eighty percent said suicide is wrong, while 84 percent disapproved of human cloning. Eighty-six percent said no to polygamy. And if there's anything Americans can agree on, it's that cheating is not okay: Ninety-one percent said affairs between married people are wrong. [Read: Why Powerful Men Cheat]

Generational differences

Although the morality gaps have remained relatively stable since 2001, generational differences emerged in some cases. About 42 percent of adults ages 18 to 34 said pornography was okay, a figure that dropped to 29 percent among people 35 to 54 and fell to 19 percent in those 55 and over.

Two-thirds of young Americans approved of gay and lesbian relationships, compared with 56 percent of the middle age group and only 47 percent of those over 55. Younger adults are also more tolerant of premarital sex, babies born outside of marriage, polygamy, abortion and human cloning, Gallup reported. They're less likely to support the death penalty or approve of medical testing on animals.

The survey results are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,018 adults, weighted by gender, age, race, ethnicity and other factors to reflect the U.S. population. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.