A record number of children worldwide are being born to unmarried mothers as traditional marriage arrangements are being abandoned at a faster pace, according to a report released today by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The surprising thing is that we've had this really big upswing in births to unmarried mothers in such a short period of time," said Stephanie Ventura, the author of the report commissioned by the CDC's National Center of Health Statistics.
In the U.S., nearly 40 percent of births were to unmarried women in 2007, compared with about 34 percent in 2002, according to data first released in March but now being compared with that of other countries.
The report shows that teenagers accounted for only 23 percent of 2007's non-marital births, down from 50 percent in 1970, demonstrating that birth rates for unmarried women in their twenties and over have risen considerably over the period.
Worldwide, of the 14 developed countries studied, the highest unwed birth rates were among the Scandinavian nations.
In Iceland, for example, 66 percent of births were to unmarried women, as were 55 percent in Sweden, 54 percent in Norway and 46 percent in Denmark. The United States unwed rate of 40 percent fell in about the middle of this group of countries, about equal to that of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
Sociologists say that the rising rate of unwed mothers reflects a lackadaisical attitude toward the tradition of marriage in Europe and in the U.S. The report didn't look at cohabitation rates, so it's impossible to tell how many of these unwed mothers in 2007 were actually living with the fathers of their children.
"The Scandinavian countries have long had a tradition of living together outside of marriage," said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today."
"In places like Sweden nearly all of the non-marital births occur to couples in long-term relationships that often last as long as if not longer than American marriages," said Cherlin.
"While in the U.S. marriage is still held up as an ideal, we are moving away from the institution of marriage as well," said Cherlin.
"For us in the U.S. it's important to be married, in Sweden it's important to have a stable relationship whether they're married or not," said Cheriln.
Unlike countries like the U.S. and those in Europe, Japan has one of the lowest rates of non-marital births, at just 2 percent.
A strong sense of tradition is responsible, according to Cherlin.
"In Japan nearly all children are born to married couples," he said. "The marriage system is still very strong in Japan and it's still socially unacceptable to have a child outside of marriage."
Robert Emery, the director for the Center for Children Families and Law at the University of Virginia, said that couples are also less inclined to tie the knot overseas than they are in the U.S. because there are fewer benefits for doing so.
"Overseas you don't need marriage as much because of the availability of social programs," said Emery. "Tax and insurance benefits aren't contingent on being married like they are in the U.S."
Though a majority of mothers who give birth in the United States are married, that doesn't mean they stay that way. The most recent data estimates that between 40 and 50 percent of American marriages end in divorce.