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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

UK among most liberal countries on divorce and abortion, survey reveals

Little girl waving rainbow flag amid crowd at Pride in London.
In the UK, 65% of respondents said they found homosexuality acceptable. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

The UK has overtaken Canada, Germany and Australia to become one of the world’s most socially liberal nations towards divorce and abortion, the latest wave of a global study has revealed.

Significant increases in the last five years in people saying the practices are justifiable is mirrored by sharply increasing acceptance of homosexuality, casual sex and prostitution over the same period, the World Values Survey found.

The latest wave of the survey, analysed by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, focuses on 24 countries across the Americas, Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, accounting for about half of the world’s population.

The UK now ranks in the top four countries for considering divorce, abortion, euthanasia, suicide and casual sex justifiable. Swedes are the most liberal on divorce and abortion, Germans on euthanasia and the French on suicide. While 48% of Australians think casual sex is justifiable, only 1% of Chinese people agree. Nigerians are the least accepting of homosexuality and divorce; Egyptians oppose abortion and suicide most; and only 1% of South Koreans think prostitution is justifiable, compared with more than a quarter of Australians.

Academics said the findings exposed how much more liberal the UK has become over a relatively short period of time and showed how politicians may face public pressure in the near future to consider reform on sensitive topics such as assisted dying.

Since 2009, the proportion of people across all UK generations considering casual sex justifiable has at least doubled. While the youngest people are the most accepting of divorce, over half of the prewar generation agree, up from about 20% in 2009.

“What were once pressing moral concerns – things like homosexuality, divorce and casual sex – have become simple facts of life for much of the public,” said Prof Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute. “This mostly isn’t just driven by younger generations replacing older generations. All generations have changed their views significantly.”

The increasing acceptability of divorce does not appear to have increased its prevalence. In 2021, divorce rates in England and Wales hit their highest level since 2014, but remained lower than during the noughties, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Abortion providers have reported being “busier than ever”, and NHS England has reported increased demand. The director of one major provider, Dr Jonathan Lord, of MSI Reproductive Choices UK, told the Guardian in January that the rise was being driven by “the economic downturn, the cost of living crisis and the ability to access good quality contraception” via GPs and sexual health services, which have been affected by the wider NHS crisis.

Amid the banning of abortion in some US states, pro-choice campaigners have warned that people should not assume abortion rights will remain protected in the UK. Brook, a sexual health charity, has described it as “a precarious and stigmatised part of UK healthcare”.

One issue on which the UK remains mid-table is the death penalty, with 55% of people considering it justifiable or potentially justifiable. The findings – which come after it emerged the Conservative party deputy chair, Lee Anderson, had recently advocated the return of capital punishment – show that people in Russia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Germany and among more than half of the countries surveyed were more opposed to the death penalty than those in Britain.

Duffy said British enthusiasm for executions had softened over recent years, but the issue was bound up with political identities, “with Conservative voters much more supportive of capital punishment [67% said it was at least potentially justifiable] than Labour voters [47%], which helps explain why it continues to be brought up in political discussions”.

The number of people considering suicide justifiable also increased in the UK at the highest rate seen since the global study began in 1981. It appears to have been driven up in part by generation Z (born since 1996), a third of whom think suicide is justifiable – far higher than all other UK generations and double the number among baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1965).

All generations, including those born before the second world war, are becoming increasingly likely to consider suicide justifiable, although across the whole population most do not.

The suicide rate in England and Wales has been broadly steady since 2008 after falling over the previous 25 years. In 2021 there were 5,583 suicides registered, three-quarters of which were in men. Men aged 50 to 54 years had the highest age-specific suicide rate, at about double that of those in their 20s.

Duffy said generation Z’s acceptance of suicide “could simply be a sign of an increasingly tolerant society and a cohort of young that better understands and engages on mental health issues”. He added that while there had not been significant increases in suicide rates among the young, there had been an increase in suicide attempts and self-harming behaviours.

The growth in acceptance of euthanasia continues in the UK despite its continued criminalisation. Over the last 25 years, acceptance has risen above attitudes in Canada, where some medically assisted dying has been legal since 2016. In the UK, 47% of people now think it is justifiable, up from 20% in 1981. But acceptance remains lower than in Germany and Australia.

A private member’s bill to “allow terminally ill, mentally capable adults to have the option of accelerating their deaths with medical assistance” is at the reading stage in the House of Lords. The last time a similar bill was introduced in 2015, it was heavily defeated in the Commons.

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