- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

A rise in the number of women in their prime childbearing years has led to the first increase in U.S. births since 1990 and a record number of unwed births, the federal government said yesterday.

More than 3.9 million babies were born in 1998, up 2 percent from 1997, said the report on final birth data in 1998, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

The number of unwed births 1,293,567 reached a new high, which experts attribute largely to a surge in cohabitation.

The report found that births to unwed mothers rose to 32.8 percent in 1998, from 32.4 percent in 1997. The unwed birthrate had leveled off for several years.

Robert Rector, welfare analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said political leaders were not doing enough to combat illegitimacy, which is a "much bigger problem than teen pregnancy."

"Why is giving birth when you're under 18 a national catastrophe, but giving birth at 18 years and one month is not?" he asked.

Part of welfare reform's mandate is to reduce illegitimacy, but governors are reluctant to target their excess welfare funds to that issue. Meanwhile, he said, "a child is born out of wedlock every 25 seconds."

In one of the few decreases seen in 1998, the data showed that the teen birthrate fell for the seventh year in a row. These declines "almost fully reverse" a 24 percent increase in teen birthrates that occurred between 1986 and 1991, the report said.

"The continued improvement in teen birthrates is good news for all of us who are working to help our teen-agers make responsible choices," Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala said yesterday.

"However, the increase in births to unmarried mothers, as well as the increase in teen mothers who smoke, are troubling," she said.

Last year, the United States had a record low birthrate, of 14.5 births per 1,000 persons. By comparison, in the baby boomer years of the 1950s and 1960s, there were about 24 births per 1,000 persons.

In 1998, more women entered their childbearing years there were 28.6 million women between the ages of 15 and 44 in 1997, for instance, and 29.2 million such women in 1998, the report said.

This increase helped nudge the overall birthrate to 14.6 births per 1,000 persons, said NCHS demographer Stephanie J. Ventura, who noted that birthrates for women in their 30s are at their highest in three decades.

This increase was the first since 1990, when there were 4.1 million births, she added.

Mrs. Ventura noted that data from the early 1990s indicate that 40 percent of unwed births are to cohabiting parents. This means that while these children are counted as out of wedlock, they may be living in relatively stable homes, she said.

Cohabitation is "replacing marriage as the first living together union," especially among young adults, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe said in their report on marriage, issued last year.

Studies show, however, that cohabiting is less stable than marriage cohabiting parents break up at higher rates than married parents, the sociologists said.

The NCHS report also said that:

• The number of births to girls ages 10 to 14 dropped 7 percent from 1997 and is now the lowest in three decades. The birthrate for these very young girls was 1 birth per 1,000 girls in 1998, with 9,462 babies born.

• Birthrates to high school teens (ages 15 to 17) and older teens (18 and 19) declined in 1998, by 5 percent and 2 percent, respectively.

• Cigarette smoking by pregnant women was down by 2 percent, with 12.9 percent saying they smoked. Smoking among pregnant teens, however, rose for the fourth year in a row.

• The age of the father was missing on more birth certificates: In 1990, 16 percent of birth certificates had the father's age; in 1998, only 14 percent of certificates had the father's age.

• Twin births rose 6 percent to 110,670 the largest single-year increase in several decades. The number of triplets and other multiple births climbed 13 percent, to 7,625.

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