WEDNESDAY, May 13 — The number of unmarried women having children has risen sharply in the United States and several other countries, according to U.S. health officials. In the United States, 40 percent of births are now to unwed mothers, and most of these are to women in their 20s, not teenagers, according to a report, Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“After having relative stability in births to unmarried women from the mid 1990s to 2002, we’ve seen really big increases between 2002 and 2007,” said Stephanie J. Ventura, director of the Reproductive Statistics Branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and author of the report.
In the United States, out-of-wedlock births increased by 26 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to the report. In 1980, the rate of out-of-wedlock births was 18 percent.
Though the reasons for the increase are not clear, Ventura said, one factor might be that having a child when you’re not married is no longer stigmatized.
“The whole thing about social disapproval pretty much evaporated in the last 10 or 15 years, and it’s even more so now,” Ventura said.
Also, the numbers of women having out-of-wedlock births in the United States is so large and widespread in all population groups that it cannot be accounted for by socioeconomic factors, Ventura said.
The trends, though, are concerning, she said.
“Births to unmarried women are at higher risk for poorer birth outcome,” Ventura said. “They are more likely to be low birth weight, be preterm and die in infancy. Other research has shown that children are better off being raised in two-parent families.”
In addition, because most of these births are unplanned, she said, there could be substantial public health concerns.
Bill Albert, a spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said he thinks that many Americans don’t take having children seriously.
“This puts the nail in the coffin of this misperception most Americans have that nonmarital childbearing is something that is primarily a teen activity,” Albert said.
Also, the report confirms that the United States is not alone in the high rate of out-of-wedlock births, he said, adding that “this is not a social and cultural revolution that is unique to the United States.”
The real issue, Albert said, is the welfare of these children. “We now have about two decades of good social science research that comes to the conclusion that, as a general matter, children do better in low-conflict, loving, two-parent families,” he said.
There needs to be more education about the responsibility that goes along with having children, as well as education about contraception, he said.
“Young people need to understand that having children and raising children is a rewarding but extremely challenging task,” Albert said. “It is not something that should be undertaken lightly. As a general matter, everyone needs to take the important issue of sex, contraception, pregnancy and childbearing seriously.”
For comparison, Ventura looked at out-of-wedlock births in other industrialized countries between 1980 and 2007 and found a dramatic increase there as well.
The largest increases were seen in the Netherlands, where out-of-wedlock births rose from 4 to 40 percent. In Spain, out-of-wedlock births increased from 4 percent to 28 percent, in Ireland the numbers went from 5 to 33 percent and in Italy they rose from 4 to 21 percent.
Other findings in the report include:
* Countries with a higher percentage of births to unwed mothers than recorded in the United States include Iceland (66 percent), Sweden (55 percent), Norway (54 percent), France (50 percent), Denmark (46 percent) and the U.K. (44 percent).
* Countries with lower rates of out-of-wedlock births than the United States include Ireland (33 percent), Germany (30 percent), Canada (30 percent), Spain (28 percent), Italy (21 percent) and Japan (2 percent).
* In the United States, out-of-wedlock births are highest among women in their early 20s and lowest among girls younger than 18 and women older than 35.
* The majority of births to teens are to unmarried teens. For those aged 15 to 17, 93 percent of births are out-of-wedlock, as are 84 percent of births to teens 18 to 19 years old.
* Among women in their 20s, 45 percent of births are to those who are not married. In 2007, among women 20 to 24 years old, 60 percent of births were out-of-wedlock, up from 52 percent in 2002. Almost 33 percent of births to women 25 to 29 years old were out-of-wedlock in 2007, up from 25 percent in 2002.
* Hispanic women have the highest out-of-wedlock birth rate (106 births per 1,000). The rate for black women is 72 per 1,000 births; for white women, it’s 32 per 1,000.
Laura Lindberg, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute in New York City, sees the findings as a reflection of social change in the United States.
“As fewer people are married during their 20s, they have more opportunity to have a nonmarital birth,” Lindberg said.
“These changes are happening throughout the industrialized world, and nonmarital childbearing has become much less stigmatized,” she said. “What we have is a changing definition of family.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on unmarried childbirth.
SOURCES: Stephanie J. Ventura, M.A., director, Reproductive Statistics Branch, National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Bill Albert, chief program officer, National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Washington, D.C.; Laura Lindberg, senior research associate, Guttmacher Institute, New York City; May 13, 2009, CDC report, Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States