Nonmarital Childbearing

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Nonmarital Childbearing

Nonmarital childbearing is a part of the reproductive experience of many women, but much more so in some cultures than others. Nonmarital births are of two basic types. Some births, especially among younger women, are to those who never have been married. The other type of nonmarital childbearing occurs among women who were previously married, but who were divorced or widowed at the time of the birth. Among other factors, increasing diversity in marriage and family forms have contributed to the prevalence of nonmarital births. Specifically, cohabiting unions, where partners live in an informal, marriage-like relationship, often result in nonmarital births. Such unions are common in many cultures (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1998). Changing social and cultural norms including increased acceptance of premarital sex, out-of-wedlock childbearing, abortions, divorce, decisions to never marry, and greater labor force participation by women are thought to contribute to upward trends in nonmarital childbearing (Thornton 1995).

Nonmarital Childbearing in Developing Nations

Where strong cultural norms link marriage and fertility, nonmarital childbearing is likely to be especially visible among adolescents. Worldwide trends such as younger age of reproductive maturity, later age of marriage for women, improvements in women's reproductive (and overall) health, and changing social norms and attitudes have contributed to an increase in premarital sexual activity among adolescents. These trends are clearly visible for example, in Kenya, Ghana, Colombia, and Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). A common consequence of these trends is a high level of nonmarital fertility among adolescents. For example, in Botswana and Namibia, three-fourths of births to adolescents are nonmarital (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1998).

Several factors influence the prevalence of nonmarital childbearing among adolescents in developing nations. In some cultures, nonmarital childbearing among adolescents is a means to prove fertility and might even be a prerequisite to marriage (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1998). The prevalence of nonmarital childbearing among adolescents in developing nations also is influenced by the availability of modern contraceptive methods. Sexually active unmarried adolescents are more likely than those who are married to seek and use birth control. For example, in Côte d'Ivoire, 47 percent of unmarried adolescents use contraception whereas only 8 percent of married adolescents do so (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1998). The availability of reliable methods of contraception is not uniform across developing nations; moreover, cultural norms may deny contraceptive access to adolescents. A vast majority of sexually active adolescents in developing nations can, therefore, be at risk for nonmarital childbearing.

Research documenting trends in nonmarital childbearing in developing nations is inadequate for a comprehensive understanding. Some developing nations have strict norms against premarital and extramarital sexual activity, and, as a result, respondents may be unwilling to disclose nonmarital childbearing. In some developing countries (e.g., in North Africa and the Middle East), national surveys do not collect data on sexual activity among unmarried women, because cultural norms perpetuate the assumption that sexual activity is confined to marriage. In such nations, it is difficult to estimate the trends and patterns of nonmarital childbearing. However, it may be speculated that the level of nonmarital sexual activity is indeed low within developing nations, where there are strict cultural norms and taboos that regulate sexual activity. For example, less than 10 percent of adolescents in India reported being sexually active during adolescence (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1998).

Nonmarital Childbearing in Developed Nations

An examination of nonmarital childbearing trends in developed nations dramatic increase between 1970 and 1999 (see Table 1 and Figure 1). The United States, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden have witnessed their nonmarital childbearing rates tripling, and in some cases (Denmark, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom), quadrupling or more during this period.

Nonmarital childbearing trends in some developed nations (especially Canada and the United Kingdom) are comparable to those in the United States. In 1995, the proportion of all births to unmarried women was about one-third in the United States and Canada, but was as high as 55 percent in Sweden, and 45 percent in Denmark. Developed countries with lower nonmarital births were: Japan (1% in 1995), Italy (9%), Germany (20%), and the Netherlands (23%). However, the United States has relatively higher nonmarital childbearing among teenagers, even compared with countries

TABLE 1 Percentage of nonmarital births in selected industrialized nations: 1970–1999
 percentage of nonmarital births
country 19701980199019951999
11980 through 1990 excludes newfoundland. after 1990 a significant number of births are not allocated according to marital status, resulting in an understatement of the proportion of births to unmarried women.
2prior to 1990, data are for former west germany.
source: u.s. bureau of census, statistical abstract of the united states: 1998. council of europe, recent demographic developments in europe, 2000. statistics canada, canada year book 2001. s. j. ventura and c. a. bachrach, "nonmarital childbearing in the united states, 1940–99." national vital statistics reports.
united states1118283233
netherlands 2 4111623
united kingdom812283439

where the total nonmarital childbearing rates are higher than those in the United States (Singh and Darroch 2000).

International trends of increasing nonmarital childbearing have not been observed in some developed nations. The nonmarital childbearing rate in Japan is among the lowest in developed nations and had remained stable between 1970 and 1995. Cultural influences that serve to distinguish Japan from the nations discussed above may be an important explanation for this finding. In addition to an emphasis on fertility within marriage, Japan is also experiencing a decline in total fertility due to sociocultural changes and women's increased labor force participation (Iwao 2001).

Nonmarital births in the United States. Increasing numbers of births to unmarried mothers began to be a major concern in the United States in the late 1960s. There were about 224,000 children born in 1960 to unmarried mothers (Furstenberg 1991), but by 1991, that number had risen to more than 1.2 million (Ventura and Martin 1993). Nonmarital births increased from 11 percent of all births in 1970 to 33 percent in 1994 (Ventura and Bachrach 2000). The nonmarital birthrate in the United States has remained approximately the same from 1994 to 1999 (Terry-Humen, Menlove, and Moore 2001).

The United States has traditionally had a high birthrate among adolescents (Singh and Darroch 2000). Approximately 80 percent of teenage births in the United States are nonmarital (Terry-Humen et al. 2001), but teens account for only 29 percent of all nonmarital births in this country. The teenage percentage of all nonmarital births has fallen from 50 percent in 1970 to 29 percent in 1999. On the other hand, the percentage of all nonmarital births that occurred among women aged twenty-five and older rose from 18 percent in 1970 to 34 percent in 1999 (Ventura and Bachrach 2000).

Nonmarital childbearing in the United States varies across ethnic groups. In 1970, the nonmarital birthrate was 13.9 per 1,000 women for white women and 95.5 for African-American women; this large racial difference has narrowed over time. In 1998, the nonmarital birthrate per 1,000 women was 37.5 for white women, 73.3 for African-American women, and 90.1 for Latina women (Ventura and Bachrach 2000). Latina women have the highest nonmarital birthrate among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States (Ventura and Bachrach 2000).

One explanation for the nonmarital birth trends in the United States is the rise of cohabiting unions. The proportion of cohabiting unions increased from 29 percent in the 1980 to 1984 period to 39 percent in the 1990 to 1994 period. The percentage of nonmarital births from cohabiting unions varies by ethnic group. In 1994, Latinos had the highest rate (53%) of nonmarital births resulting from cohabiting unions, followed by whites (50%), and African Americans (22%) (Bumpass and Lu 2000). Another explanation for the high non-marital birthrate in the United States is the decline in marriage rates for women aged eighteen to forty-four, especially among women in the twenty and older age category. For example, the percentage of unmarried women in the twenty-five to twenty-nine age group increased from 16 percent in 1970 to 45 percent in 1998 (Ventura and Bachrach 2000). Declining marriage rates for women are an indication of broad socioeconomic changes. The rise in cohabiting unions, later age of marriage, and a growing tendency to never marry (Abma et al. 1997) are some of the changes that have contributed to increasing trends in nonmarital childbearing. In addition, when faced with a non-marital pregnancy, fewer women today marry before the birth of the child than in the past (Terry-Humen et al. 2001).

Risk Factors Associated with Nonmarital Childbearing in Developed Nations

An understanding of risk factors associated with nonmarital childbearing is vital for policy makers who are concerned with reducing rates. Childhood experiences, environmental contexts, neighborhoods, socioeconomic opportunities, family structure, parents' marital status, and parental educational and income levels are some of the common risk factors thought to be associated with nonmarital childbearing.

Risk factors for nonmarital childbearing in the United States. Research on the risk factors for nonmarital childbearing in the United States reveals that instability in family living arrangements due to parents' divorce, remarriage, job loss, and frequent migration is associated with children's nonmarital childbearing later in life. In addition, children in single parent homes who experience poverty and inadequacy of resources face a higher likelihood of being involved in nonmarital fertility. Further, individuals who suffer physical or sexual abuse as children are more likely to have nonmarital births in their adolescent or early adult years (Burton 1995).

Nonmarital fertility is also influenced by neighborhood contexts. Women in neighborhoods with a higher concentration of public assistance recipients experience higher levels of nonmarital fertility (Hill and O' Neill 1993), possibly because the receipt of public assistance is related to poverty, the absence of positive role models, and a lack of community resources (Duncan 1995).

Nonmarital fertility is also influenced by marital opportunities. Marriage rates are often lower among women who live in areas with relatively fewer numbers of employed men (South and Lloyd 1992). In addition, marriage and nonmarital fertility rates are affected by the economic position of men and their ability to support a family (Duncan 1995).

Research on adolescents suggests that the absence of social and economic opportunities, along with disadvantaged socioeconomic contexts, often leads to teenage pregnancy and childbirth (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1994). Adolescents who grow up in resource-deprived neighborhoods, those who lack positive role models in their families and neighborhoods, and those whose parents have lower educational and income levels are more likely to engage in early sexual intercourse and nonmarital childbearing (Brooks-Gunn et al. 1993; Duncan 1995). Other risk factors associated with the early onset of sexual activity and nonmarital fertility in adolescents include: early onset of puberty (Morris 1992), being African-American (Brewster 1994), and exhibiting psychosocial deviance (Costa et al. 1995). Research also indicates that warmth, connectedness, and communication between parents and children, parental monitoring and supervision of children, and parents' values against sexual intercourse or unprotected inter-course by their children are related to a reduction in the risk of adolescent pregnancy (Miller, Benson, and Galbraith 2001). In addition, teenagers who perform poorly at school, have low future aspirations, and who belong to disadvantaged families and communities face a higher risk of becoming sexually active at a younger age and of experiencing nonmarital childbearing (Miller 1995). Female adolescents who have traditional views about gender roles and family, and those with low self-esteem face a higher possibility of being involved in nonmarital childbearing (Plotnick 1992).

Consequences of Nonmarital Childbearing in Developed Nations

Nonmarital childbearing has implications for women, children, and entire societies across the world. One of the most pervasive consequences of nonmarital childbearing is the altered life trajectories of women and children who experience it. The exact consequences of nonmarital childbearing may vary from one nation to another depending on economic, social, and political conditions, but some general consequences have been documented in research.

Consequences of nonmarital childbearing in the United States. Research in the United States suggests that nonmarital childbearing has several negative consequences for women and their children. Women who experience nonmarital births attain lower levels of education and income, and are more likely to be dependant on governmental support (Driscoll et al. 1999). Further, women who experience nonmarital childbearing are likely to experience poverty. This is often due to the fact that the fathers of their children are unable or unwilling to pay child support (Garfinkel 1993; Garfinkel, McLanahan, and Robins 1994). Experiencing early single parenthood can hinder women from realizing their educational and career goals and may also limit the scope of future mate selection or family structure choices (Miller 1995). Teenagers who experience nonmarital fertility are less likely to complete high school or obtain college education (McLanahan 1995), and are thus more likely to experience poverty in their lives.

Nonmarital childbearing has negative consequences for children. Children of unmarried mothers are more likely to live in poverty. They are also likely to experience other risks such as a higher school dropout rate, a higher possibility of engaging in premarital sex, and experiencing teenage nonmarital pregnancy (Aquilino 1996; Moore, Morrison, and Glei 1995; Wu 1996). Children of unmarried mothers are also more likely to grow up in single parent, typically female-headed, households and to experience instability in living arrangements (Aquilino 1996; Bumpass and Lu 2000).

Nonmarital childbearing can have negative behavioral and cognitive outcomes for children, such as: delinquent behaviors, lower scores on standardized tests, and lower school grades (McLanahan 1995). Children of unmarried mothers may receive lower levels of parental supervision and involvement (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994). Children who grow up in neighborhoods with a high prevalence of single parent families might also consider nonmarital fertility to be a viable option in the future, and are more likely to engage in it themselves (McLanahan 1995). Children of young, unmarried teenage mothers also tend to experience a lower quality of home environment. Many of the negative consequences of nonmarital childbearing are partially due to the poverty that often accompanies nonmarital fertility (McLanahan 1995).


Nonmarital fertility has become prevalent in many countries of the world. Due to social and cultural norms against nonmarital childbearing in developing nations, and because reliable data are not available to document rates and trends of nonmarital fertility in some cases, little is known about nonmarital childbearing in developing nations. On the other hand, among developed nations, non-marital childbearing clearly has increased dramatically between 1970 and 1999, in most cases by a factor of 3 or 4. In the United States nonmarital births increased from about 1 in 10 in 1970 to about 1 in 3 in 1999. Although 80 percent of births to U.S. teenagers are nonmarital, teenagers account for only 29 percent of all nonmarital births, whereas women aged twenty-five and older account for 34 percent of nonmarital births in the United States. Nonmarital childbearing in the United States varies across racial and ethnic groups. In 1998, Latina women had the highest nonmarital birthrate, followed by African-American and white women respectively. The postponement of marriage, reflected in declining marriage rates and increasing cohabitation, as well as broad socioeconomic changes have contributed to increases in nonmarital childbearing. At a more specific level, unstable family arrangements, the experience of physical or sexual abuse, negative neighborhood contexts, the scarcity of marital opportunities, and disadvantaged socioeconomic contexts are all key risk factors associated with nonmarital childbearing. Among adolescents in particular, parental values about sexual activity, warmth and connectedness between parents and children, and parental monitoring of children are associated with nonmarital childbearing. Adolescent nonmarital childbearing often results in reduced educational attainment and income, and less stable ongoing marital and family structures for women and children. Nonmarital childbearing also results in negative cognitive, environmental, and behavioral outcomes for children. Policies to discourage nonmarital births among women and adolescents might help arrest these trends. Increased economic opportunities for women, economic initiatives for educational attainment, and policies supporting deferred childbearing among teenagers are examples of such policies.

See also:Abortion; Adolescent Parenthood; Cohabitation; Motherhood; Pregnancy and Birth; Religion; Sexuality in Adolescence,Single-Parent Families


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