Births to unmarried women in the United States hit a record 1.4 million in 2003, while births to teens fell for the 12th consecutive year.
Births to unmarried women increased to 34.6 percent of all U.S. births — also a new record, said researchers with the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which released its final report on 2003 birth data yesterday.
The rise in out-of-wedlock births worries social conservatives, who say the problem is linked to poverty, juvenile delinquency and poor social and educational outcomes.
One reason for the higher unwed birthrates is that unmarried women are relying too much on contraceptives instead of abstinence, said Bridget Maher, family analyst at the Family Research Council. “Behavioral change — and not pharmaceuticals — will solve this problem.”
The decrease in teen births — a total of 421,241 in 2003, the lowest “since 1946, the first year of the baby boom,” the NCHS said — was hailed as “a huge American success story,” by Sarah S. Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
“I’m struck by the sheer magnitude of the progress,” Mrs. Brown said. Not only is the teen birthrate down 57 percent from 1991, to 41.6 births per 1,000 teens, but the birthrate for black teens has fallen by 67 percent over those 12 years, she said. “That is astounding progress worth national attention.”
Such progress, however, was offset by record high levels of unmarried motherhood.
The number of unwed births “really jumped” from 1,365,966 in 2002 to 1,415,995 million in 2003 — the highest number recorded since the federal government started keeping records in 1940, said Stephanie Ventura, one of the authors of the NCHS report.
In the past, the steady increase in unwed births was largely attributed to the concurrent rise in the number of unmarried women, she said. But the 4 percent increase between 2002 and 2003 is too big to be explained by demographics, she said. “It’s a change in the pattern.”
Many researchers link increases in unwed childbearing to the rise in unwed cohabitation, later-in-life marriages by young adults and an increase in childbearing by older, single “mothers by choice.”
“One thing to notice is that the rates for unmarried teenagers continued to decline, so all these [unwed birth] increases are in women in their 20s and older,” Mrs. Ventura said.
Joyce Martin, another NCHS researcher, said the report had some good news on health indicators — more women are getting prenatal care and fewer are smoking during pregnancy. However, premature-birth rates are up, as are the number of babies born with low birth weights. Also, the rate of Caesarean section births hit a record high in 2003.
C-sections are necessary for many mothers, but some medical professionals worry that the procedure is used when not medically needed, she said.
The 2003 data also show that most births continue to occur among women age 25 or older, said NCHS researcher Brady Hamilton.
In the past — until the early 1980s — “the principal childbearing years were 20 to 24,” he said. In 2003, the birthrate to women ages 20 to 24 reached its lowest point on record while birthrates climbed among women in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s.