Amid a New Baby Boom, a Jump in Adult Unwed Mothers

Amid a New Baby Boom, a Jump in Adult Unwed Mothers

Somewhere Dan Quayle is clenching his fists. Two decades after the then-vice
president bemoaned single motherhood — calling out the sitcom Murphy Brown for
having its eponymous main character choose to have a child on her own — the
latest data on U.S. births show that a full 40% of babies are now born to
unmarried mothers.

The findings, released Wednesday by the National Center for Health
Statistics and covering the 2007 calendar year, also revealed a general
increase in fertility rates across nearly every age category. That rise
included teen birth rates, which jumped 4% between 2005 and 2007, after a
startling 45% decline from 1991 to 2005.

This turnaround of what had been an enormous public health advance has
policy makers worried — and culture warriors pointing fingers. Within a half
hour of the data release on Wednesday, the National Abstinence Education
Association released a statement calling for greater use of abstinence — only
sex education programs in public schools. At the same time, supporters of
so-called comprehensive sex education, like columnist Bonnie Erbe at U.S.
News & World Report, said abstinence education is the problem; they blamed
the rising teen birth rate on the fact that federal funding for sex
education over the past eight years has been restricted to programs that
encourage kids to postpone sex until marriage.

But though the prospect of more and more high school students becoming
parents is worrisome, school-age teens still represent a small percentage of
unmarried mothers. The birth rate for teenagers ages 15 to 17 is around 22
per 1,000, while their older peers ages 18 and 19 are having three times as
many babies, almost 74 for every 1,000. Even higher is the rate for
unmarried women in their twenties, who now make up the majority of single

The rising birth rate among those twenty-something women — sometimes referred
to as the “Knocked Up” phenomenon — caught the attention of researchers a few
years ago. The numbers were sufficiently alarming that the National Campaign
to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, knowing that 7 of 10 pregnancies to single women
in their twenties are unplanned, decided to expand its mission to include
young women in this vulnerable age group. Says Sarah Brown, CEO of the
newly named National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy: “We
first started to notice this trend [because] when teen birth rates went down, those for women in their twenties were going up. Historically, those rates all track together — they all went up and down together. This was an aberration.”

Brown and her colleagues found that while extensive public policy resources
have been devoted to preventing teen pregnancy, very few have focused on
women once they graduate from high school. Sexuality workshops are popular
on college campuses, but they deal primarily with getting pleasure from sex
and not on information about contraception or healthy sexual
decision-making. By the time adults are in their twenties, they have even
fewer resources. The National Campaign is conducting a survey of young
adults in their twenties that will be released later this year, and Brown
says she’s been shocked by some of the findings so far.

“We’re learning that a lot of young adults don’t know as much about the
basic facts and the birds and the bees as most of us think they do,” she
says. “If you’re 24, the last time you had sex ed was probably in the 10th
grade. You wouldn’t have been taught about some of the newer methods of
birth control like the ring or IUDs. There’s a large amount of simple misinformation or ignorance.”

There’s also the problem of what Brown calls “magical thinking” among men
and women in their twenties. “Many of them have had some unprotected sex and
haven’t gotten pregnant,” she explains. “The longer they go without a
pregnancy, the more tempting it is to think that it can’t happen to them.”
Women are also vulnerable to the misconception that a pregnancy — even
unintended — can cement a relationship and bring a couple closer together.
In fact, all of the statistics show that babies stress relationships; more
couples end up splitting than
marrying .

The rise in unmarried mothers is just part of what amounts to a new baby
boom; the 4.3 million births in 2007 was the highest number ever registered
in the country. That’s good news for Babies ‘R Us and the daycare industry. But the rise in births to unmarried
mothers could become a policy challenge, even for those who disagree with
Dan Quayle. Study after study has shown that babies born to unmarried
mothers are at higher risk of ending up in poverty, and that the mothers
themselves face educational and economic hurdles. “And in this economy,
where attachment to the labor force and jobs are so precarious,” says Brown,
“the need for teen and young adult years to be used for education and
training has never been more pressing.”

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