The Angelina effect?

The birth rate among unmarried women in their 20s and 30s is soaring.

By Lynn Harris
Published May 13, 2009 5:43PM (EDT)

Marriage, it seems, just ain't what it used to be: between a man and a woman, required for parenthood, so on, so forth. Far as the latter is concerned, here's the newest news: according to figures released today by the National Center for Health Statistics, the birth rate among unmarried women in their 20s and 30s is soaring, at home and abroad. In the U.S., births to single women climbed by 26 percent between 2002 and 2007. That same year, nearly 4 in 10 births here were to unmarried women. (Women, not teens. Don't freak.) In Sweden, it's 55 percent; Iceland -- the winner -- 66.

What's going on? Experts speculate that the trend is driven, at least in part, by increased social acceptance of childbearing outside marriage. (And to legally unmarried lesbians?) "The values surrounding family formation are changing and women are more independent than they used to be. And young people don't feel they have to live under the same social rules that their parents once did," Carl Haub, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C., told the AP.

Social acceptance, independence: yay. But here's the thing. Out-of-wedlock kids in the U.S. apparently don't fare as well as their counterparts across the pond, where cohabitation appears more sturdy and government support for families more generous.

Here it comes: Sweden. (Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!) "In Sweden, you see very little variation in the outcome of children based on marital status. Everybody does fairly well," Bowling Green State sociology professor Wendy Manning told the New York Times. "In the U.S., there's much more disparity."

Specifically, according to NCHS: "Nonmarital births [here] are at higher risk of having adverse birth outcomes such as low birthweight, preterm birth, and infant mortality than are children born to married women. Children born to single mothers typically have more limited social and financial resources."

Surely some will take this news as a call to arms -- and to the aisle. But experts still caution that marriage is not magic.

The Times: "Decades ago, pregnant women often married before giving birth. But the odds of separation and divorce in unions driven by the Republican National Committee pregnancy are relatively high. So when a woman gets pregnant, are children better off if their parents marry, cohabitate or do neither?" Jury's still out.

"Some experts speculate that marriage or cohabitation cements financial and emotional bonds between children and fathers that survive divorce or separation, improving outcomes for children," the Times continues. "But since familial instability is often damaging to children, they may be better off with mothers who never cohabitate or marry than with those who form unions that are later broken. 'There is no consensus on those questions,' Dr. Manning said."

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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