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Unwed Mothers

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USA in middle of world trend of births to unmarried women

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

The percentage of births to unmarried mothers is increasing worldwide, according to a new federal report that shows a universal upward trend over the last 25 years.

Among 14 countries analyzed in the report by the National Center for Health Statistics, the percentage of all live unmarried births in the USA — 40% in 2007 — ranks somewhere in the middle. That's up from 18% in 1980. The sharpest rise was from 2002 to 2007, the report found.

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Countries with a higher proportion of births to unmarried mothers include Iceland, Sweden, Norway, France, Denmark and the United Kingdom; countries with a lower percentage than the USA include Ireland, Germany, Canada, Spain, Italy and Japan.

In 2007, the Netherlands had the same percentage as the USA, but it has increased ten-fold there from 4% in 1980.

Demographer Patrick Heuveline of the University of California-Los Angeles compared non-marital fertility in many of the same countries about a decade ago. He found that U.S. mothers are more likely to be single parents because the non-married couple relationship doesn't tend to last very long, something he says continues to be true, he says.

"There might be little bit more cohabitation now, but it's probably true that the United States remains unique and ahead of other countries for births to single mothers not in a cohabiting partnership," he says.

Kelly Musick, an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., is studying family stability of cohabiting couples with children. Although those numbers are increasing here, Musick says the USA and the U.K. are similar because they have more solo parenting by mothers.

"The relationships of the parents are much less stable in the U.S. than a lot of other countries," she says. "In Europe, where there are high levels of childbearing outside of marriage, when childbearing is not happening in marriage, it's happening in cohabitation. Cohabitations are reasonably stable."

Other U.S. findings for 2007:

•60% of births to women ages 20-24 were non-marital, up from 52% in 2002.

•Almost one-third (32.2%) of births to women 25-29 were non-marital, up from one-quarter (25.3%) in 2002.

•Births to unmarried women totaled 1.7 million, 26% more than in 2002.

"We in the United States have taken more time and energy to study these families and figure out what the family lives of kids born to unmarried women are like. It's seen much more as a problem and something we want to understand," Musick says. "There's less attention to it in Europe. People are less concerned about their kids being born outside of marriage because they're generally born to two parents in a relationship that tends to be stable."

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