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“Many of these are women who would love to get married, but they hear their biological clocks ticking louder than the prospects of wedding bells,” he added.

Other observers caution that the unwed birthrate is often tied to the marital birthrate. Whenever married couples’ fertility falls, the proportion of out-of-wedlock births can go up, even if the rate of unmarried births is staying steady or declining, said Stephanie Coontz, professor of family studies at Evergreen State College and director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.

“Contrary to the doomsday projections that this statistic is likely to evoke,” she added, the big story may not be that there’s some continuing escalation of unmarried mothers giving births, but that the birthrates to married couples have fallen.

“This is a clear indication that the rising proportion of nonmarital births is a pervasive social phenomenon,” said Steven P. Martin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.

According to the NCHS report, “Births: Preliminary Data for 2008”:

• The number of births in 2008 was 4,251,095, down nearly 2 percent from the historical high of 4,317,119 in 2007.

• While the overall teen birthrate fell 2 percent, the largest decline (4 percent) was among the college-age teens. There was no change in the birthrate (0.6 per 1,000) among girls ages 10 to 14.

• The birthrate for Hispanic teens fell to a record low 77.4 births per 1,000.

• Birthrates also fell among women in their 20s — by 3 percent for women ages 20 to 24 and 2 percent for women ages 25 to 29. Rates for women in their 30s also fell, by 1 percent.

• However, the rate of births to women in their 40s crept up. In 2008, the birthrate to women ages 40 to 44 reached 9.9 births per 1,000 women, the highest since 1967. Rates for women 45 to 49 also rose, from 0.6 births per 1,000 to 0.7 births per 1,000.

The report also found that for the second year in a row, a smaller share of babies were born prematurely, defined as before 37 weeks of gestation. The rate declined 3 percent, from 12.7 percent of all births in 2007 to 12.3 percent in 2008. The low birthweight rate was unchanged, remaining at 8.2 percent of all births.

The Caesarean section delivery rate rose for the 12th straight year, to 32.3 percent of births in 2008, with increases among all groups of women.