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More babies being born to unwed mothers

By Rob Stein and Donna St. George
Washington Post / May 14, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The number of babies being born out of wedlock has increased sharply in the United States, driven primarily by significant jumps in women in their 20s and 30s having children without getting married, according to a federal report released yesterday.

More than 1.7 million babies were born to unmarried women in 2007, a 26 percent rise from 2002 and more than double the number in 1980, according to the report from the National Center for Health Statistics. The increase reflected a 21 percent jump in the rates of unmarried women giving birth, which rose from 43.7 per 1,000 women in 2002 to 52.9 per 1,000 women.

That means that unmarried women accounted for 39.7 percent of all US births in 2007 - up from 34 percent in 2002 and more than double the percentage in 1980. "It's been a huge increase - a dramatic increase. It's quite striking," said Stephanie Ventura, who led the analysis of birth certificate data nationwide.

Although the report did not examine the reasons for the increase, Ventura and other specialists said the trend has been driven by a combination of factors, including the lessening of the social stigma associated with unmarried motherhood, an increase in couples delaying or forgoing marriage, and growing numbers of financially independent women and older and single women who decide to have children on their own after delaying childbearing.

Some specialists said the trend represents many positive changes for some women - women are less likely to be shunned if they have children by themselves or to be forced to give their children up for adoption.

"We've seen a transformation of social norms," said Rosanna Hertz, a sociology professor at Wellesley College. "Women can have children on their own and it's not going to destroy your employment and it's not going to mean that you'll be made a pariah by the community."