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Statement on Reducing Nonmarital Births by Stephanie Ventura
National Center for Health Statistics
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Before the House Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Human Resources
June 29, 1999

Madam Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am Stephanie Ventura, a senior researcher at the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), an agency within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today about the trends and variations in births to unmarried women. The data I will draw on are from the National Vital Statistics System, one of more than a dozen data systems that the CDC/NCHS maintains that allow us to profile the health and health care experiences of Americans. At NCHS, I have worked with the data on nonmarital births for over thirty years.

CDC/NCHS is the Nation's principal health statistics agency. In addition to the vital statistics system, we obtain our information through ongoing and special studies, including surveys where we interview a representative sample of Americans about their health, surveys where we conduct direct physical examinations, and surveys using hospital data and data from other providers of care. These data systems provide information on a broad range of health and health-related topics, ranging from birth to death and covering such topics as teen pregnancy, blood lead levels in children, incidence of overweight, cholesterol levels, immunizations, health insurance and access to care, the use of surgical procedures, and life expectancy. Data from CDC/NCHS are among the most fundamental measures supporting health policy decisions, public health practice, and research.

Today I will be talking with you about statistics from our National Vital Statistics System. By working with State health departments, we obtain data recorded on birth certificates. These certificates, initially filed as part of the vital registration process mandated in each state, are a rich resource for health and demographic research. It is through these documents that we obtain data on teen births, prenatal care, low birthweight, smoking during pregnancy, and other important measures. Birth certificates include an item on marital status, and this item allows us to monitor trends in nonmarital births.


I will be presenting both broad trends and some illustrative details on nonmarital births. Much of this detail is important to grasping what has proven to be a complex social and health issue. As you sort through all of the specifics, however, I want to make sure that I convey these four important points.

  • Nonmarital births skyrocketed from 1940 to 1990 but the trends have stabilized in the 1990's, with a decline in the nonmarital birth rate since 1994.
  • Teens are not the only women having nonmarital births; in fact two-thirds of nonmarital births are to women 20 and older.
  • Teen birth rates have declined considerably since 1991, with declines in all states and in all racial and ethnic groups.
  • Nonmarital birth rates and teen birth rates have fallen for all population groups, but most sharply for black women.


Let's look first at the long-term historical trends in nonmarital births, using three key measures. These are (1) the birth rate for unmarried women, (2) the number of births to unmarried women, and (3) the percent of all births that are to unmarried women. No matter how you look at the statistics, nonmarital childbearing rose dramatically during the half century from 1940 to 1990, with somewhat larger increases in the 1980's than in previous decades (table 1, figure 1).

The birth rate for unmarried women, which describes the proportion of unmarried women who give birth, increased more than six-fold overall. Birth rates increased for women in all age groups over this period (table 2, figure 2).

The two key trends contributing to the rising numbers of nonmarital births through 1990 were the increased birth rates for unmarried women and the steep increases in the number of unmarried women in the childbearing ages. The number of unmarried women increased substantially as more and more women from the large baby-boom generation postponed marriage, a trend that shows no sign of abating with the current generation. In other words, the combination of more unmarried women who were also more likely to have a baby produced substantial increases in the number of nonmarital births.

The percent of all births that are to unmarried women rose steeply because of three concurrent trends: The increases in birth rates for unmarried women of all ages; the increases in the number and proportion of women who are unmarried, explained above; and the considerable drop in birth rates for married women (dropping 40 percent from 1960 to the late 1980's) (table 3, figure 3). Thus, the percent of all births that were to unmarried women rose because births to unmarried women increased while births to married women declined.

Data That Illustrate These Long-Term Trends

  • The birth rate increased from 7 births per 1,000 unmarried women aged 15-44 in 1940 to 44 per 1,000 in 1990 (tables 1 and 2, figure 1).
  • Trends in rates have been cyclical for most age groups, except the rates for teenagers. Teen rates rose, almost without interruption, from 1940 to 1990. Rates for women in their twenties and thirties rose steeply in the 1980's, by at least 50 percent (table 2, figure 2).
  • Major changes in marriage patterns produced rapid growth in the number of unmarried women in all age groups. Two-thirds of women in their early twenties and about 40 percent of women in their late twenties are currently unmarried.
  • The number of nonmarital births rose 13-fold between 1940 and 1990, from 89,500 in 1940 to 1.2 million in 1990 (table 1 and figure 1).
  • The percent of all births that occurred to unmarried women rose seven-fold, from 4 percent in 1940 to 28 percent in 1990 (table 1 and figure 1). Increases were substantial in all age groups (table 4 and figure 4).
  • Increases in birth rates for unmarried women aged 20 and older have contributed to striking shifts in the age distribution of nonmarital births. By 1990, only one-third were to teenagers compared with half in 1975.


In contrast to previous decades, during the 1990's nonmarital childbearing has stopped rising and even declined in some age and race groups. The total number of nonmarital births rose just 8 percent between 1990 and 1997, and has stabilized in the last several years. Most of this increase was due to the continued increase in the number of unmarried women. Birth rates for unmarried women, the other factor, have stabilized and in some cases declined in the mid 1990's (tables 1 and 2, figure 2). More importantly, the proportion of births to unmarried women has increased relatively little in the 1990's. Since 1994, it has been essentially unchanged at 32 percent, reflecting stability in birth rates for unmarried women and modest increases in the number of unmarried women, coupled with declines in birth rates for married women.

I will now review some of the current patterns in nonmarital childbearing.

Variations by Race and Hispanic Origin

Nonmarital birth rates differ considerably by race and Hispanic origin. Reliable rates can be computed for white, black and Hispanic women; population data by marital status and race have not been available to allow us to compute similar rates for other race and ethnicity groups except in census years. Rates for unmarried black women have historically been higher than for white women, but the disparity has narrowed because birth rates for unmarried white women have increased more steadily than for unmarried black women (table 2).

The rate for unmarried white women more than doubled from 18 per 1,000 in 1980 to 38 in 1994, and has since declined slightly to 37. In contrast, the rate for unmarried black women increased from 81 in 1980 to 91 in 1989 (about 12 percent ), and has declined steadily since to 73 per 1,000 in 1997 (down about 19 percent) (table 2).

Rates for unmarried Hispanic women are available only since 1990. The rate was highest in 1994, at 101 per 1,000, and has dropped 10 percent since. The birth rate for unmarried Hispanic women is the highest of any race/ethnicity group; this is consistent with the overall fertility patterns for Hispanic women.

Rates for unmarried women by age within race and Hispanic origin groups show essentially the same trends as the overall rates by race and ethnicity. Rates have fallen steeply for unmarried black women under age 35 (table 2).

Birth rates for married black women have declined even more than rates for unmarried black women and the rates are now much closer to each other (table 3). As a result, the proportion of births to unmarried black women remains high, 69 percent in 1997. Birth rates for married as well as unmarried non-Hispanic white and Hispanic women have generally stabilized or declined. As a consequence, the proportions of births to unmarried non-Hispanic white and Hispanic women have changed much less since the early 1990's compared with previous years. In 1997, 22 percent of births to non-Hispanic white women and 41 percent of births to Hispanic women were nonmarital.

Teen Birth Rate Trends

Let's look now at teen births. Although teen birth and nonmarital birth patterns are often considered interchangeable, these rates are not the same. Teen birth rates have declined considerably since 1991. The birth rate for teens aged 15-19 dropped 16 percent between 1991 and 1997, and it has continued to decline through June 1998, according to preliminary data. The rate for younger teenagers, 15-17 years, fell 17 percent while the rate for older teens 18-19 dropped 11 percent. Of particular note, the birth rate for second births to teens who have had a first birth has dropped substantially - by 21 percent - since 1991 (figure 5).

Despite the declines, however, most births that occur to teenagers are to unmarried teens. Birth rates for unmarried teens have declined steadily since 1994. The rate for unmarried teens aged 15-17 fell by 12 percent from 1994 to 1997, while the rate for older unmarried teens aged 18-19 fell 7 percent. To put these recent declines in perspective, I should note that from 1980 to 1994, the rate for unmarried teens aged 15-17 rose 55 percent, while the rate for teens 18-19 years rose 80 percent. Birth rates have dropped for unmarried non-Hispanic white, black, and Hispanic teenagers, but they dropped the most for black teenagers (table 2).


Data from CDC/NCHS' National Survey of Family Growth, CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and the NIH-sponsored National Survey of Adolescent Males can help explain some of the recent declines in teen births and in nonmarital births. These three separate surveys have all shown that the proportion of female and male teenagers who are sexually experienced has stabilized and even declined in the 1990's, reversing the steady increases that occurred over the previous two decades. In addition, teenagers are more likely to use contraceptives at first intercourse, especially condoms. About 12 percent of all teenagers using contraception and one quarter of black teenagers are using long-lasting hormonal methods including injectable and implant contraceptives. These changes in contraceptive use are probably important factors in the decline in birth rates for second births to teenagers who are already mothers (figure 5). The increases in contraceptive use reported for teenagers are also found for older women. Also a factor for black women in their late twenties and older is the continued high rates of voluntary female sterilization.


I hope that my testimony has reinforced the four major points I made when I began. First, nonmarital births rose dramatically from 1940 to 1990, but have since stabilized with a decline since 1994. Second, teens do not account for all nonmarital births; two thirds are to women aged 20 and older. Third, teen birth rates declined considerably since 1991, nationally and across all states, but most teen mothers are not married. Fourth, nonmarital births and teen births have fallen for all population groups, but most steeply for black women.

Thank you for the opportunity to present these data. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

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