The UK has overtaken Canada, Germany and Australia to become one of the world’s most socially liberal countries towards divorce and abortion, the latest wave of a global study has revealed.
Significant increases in the past 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 ranks in the top four countries for considering divorce, abortion, euthanasia, suicide and casual sex as justifiable. Swedes are 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 least accepting of homosexuality and divorce; Egyptians oppose abortion and suicide most; and only 1% of South Koreans think prostitution is justifiable compared to more than a quarter of Australians.
Academics said the findings exposed how much more liberal the UK had become over a relatively short period of time and showed how politicians may face public pressure to consider reform on sensitive topics such as assisted dying.
Since 2009, the proportion of people of 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 pre-war 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, the 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 in England and Wales, divorce rates hit their highest level since 2014 but remained lower than during the Noughties, according to the Office of National Statistics.
Abortion providers have reported being “busier than ever”, and NHS England has reported increased demand. One major provider, Dr Jonathan Lord, the director of MSI Reproductive Choices UK, said in January the rise was being driven by “the economic downturn, the cost of living crisis and the ability to access good quality contraception” through GPs and sexual health services, which have been affected by the NHS crisis.
Amid the banning of abortion in some US states, pro-choice campaigners have warned people shouldn’t 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”.
The UK remained mid-table on the death penalty, with 55% considering it justifiable or potentially justifiable. The finding – coming after the Conservative party deputy chair, Lee Anderson, advocated the return of capital punishment – showed people in Russia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Germany among the countries surveyed more opposed to the death penalty than in Britain.