Women Aged 15-29 Are Increasingly Having First Children Before Marriage

L. Gerstein, Guttmacher Institute

First published online:

| DOI: https://doi.org/10.1363/3209900

The proportion of first births to 15-29-year-old women that occur outside of marriage has more than doubled in the United States since the early 1970s, rising from 18% in 1970-1974 to 41% in 1990-1994.1 Additionally, women who become pregnant before marriage are less likely to marry today than they were in the early 1970s (23% vs. 49%). A Census Bureau analyst examining women's marriage and childbearing patterns considers the increasing tendency of women to delay marriage in favor of education and career, as well as the growing prevalence of cohabiting relationships, to be contributing to these changes.

The analysis is based on data from fertility and marital history supplements to the June 1980 and 1995 Current Population Surveys. Women were classified as having had a premarital birth if their first child was born before their first marriage. Those whose first birth occurred within seven months after their first marriage were said to have had a premarital conception. Women whose first child was born eight months or more after their first marriage were classified as having had a postmarital conception. The analyst looked at first births because their status is often predictive of women's future reproductive choices.

In the early 1970s, among women aged 15-29 who became first-time mothers, about one in three infants were born or conceived premaritally. This proportion rose to one in two in the early 1990s, but the pattern of change was very different for premarital births and conceptions. The proportion of first children who were born before their mother married increased from 18% to 41%, while the proportion conceived premaritially decreased from 17% to 12%.

The proportion of premaritally pregnant women who married before the birth of their first child also decreased from the early 1970s (49%) to the early 1990s (23%). According to the analyst, this decrease may be attributed, in part, to social changes that occurred from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. She notes that although fertility control was reaching new heights in these decades because of the pill and easing of abortion laws, women were postponing marriage longer to pursue education or a career and were becoming sexually active at younger ages. She also speculates that women became less likely to marry the father of their child simply because they were pregnant.

Patterns of marriage and childbearing differed considerably according to a woman's race. Among black women, 86% of first children were premaritally born or conceived in the early 1990s; the proportion had been 74% in the early 1970s. In both periods, premarital births far outnumbered premarital conceptions. One in 10 black women in the early 1990s married before their premaritally conceived child was born, half the proportion who had done so in the early 1970s.

By contrast, in the early 1990s, 45% of white women's first births were premarital or resulted from premarital conception; 20 years earlier, the proportion had been 29%. Interestingly, while premarital births were less common than premarital conceptions in the early 1970s (11% vs. 18% of first births), the reverse was true in 1990-1994 (32% vs. 13%).

Among women of Hispanic origin, who could be of any race, 46% of first children were born or conceived premaritally during the early 1970s and 54% during the early 1990s. Thirty-five percent of premaritally pregnant Hispanic women married before the birth of their first child in the early 1970s. This rate dropped to 27% in the late 1970s and remained in that area through the early 1990s. The rate at which Hispanic women marry after a premarital conception is not significantly different from the rate among their non-Hispanic counterparts (26% vs. 23% in the early 1990s).

Among teenagers, the proportion of first births that occurred premaritally or resulted from premarital conceptions rose from 65% in the early 1970s to 89% in the early 1990s. Teenagers became two-thirds less likely to marry before the birth of a premaritally conceived child between the early 1970s (47%) and the early 1990s (16%).

Premaritally born or conceived children represented 85% of all first births to white teenagers in 1990-1994; they had accounted for 59% of first births two decades earlier. Only one-fifth of white teenagers married before their premaritally conceived child was born in the early 1990s, compared with three-fifths in the early 1970s. Among black teenagers 98% of first children were born or conceived premaritally in the early 1990s; this proportion had increased from 88% in the early 1970s. The proportion of black teenagers who married before the birth of their premaritally conceived first child dropped from 15% in the early 1970s to 7% by the early 1990s.

In 1990-1994, 81% of first children born to Hispanic teenagers were premaritally born or conceived. This proportion represents an increase from 66% in the early 1970s. The proportion of premaritally pregnant Hispanic teenagers who married before giving birth fell by about half between 1970-1974 (38%) and 1990-1994 (18%), roughly paralleling the pattern among their non-Hispanic peers.

Which women who become pregnant before marriage are likely to marry before their child is born? One-quarter of premaritally pregnant women aged 15-44 in 1990-1994 married before the birth of their child. Using logistic regression techniques, the analyst found that teenagers were less likely than women 20-24 years old to marry (odds ratio, 0.5), and women in their early 30s were more likely than women in their early 20s to do so (3.0). The researcher speculates that women aged 30-34 may have been cohabiting with their partners at the time the pregnancy occurred, and thus may have been more likely to decide to marry than younger adults or teenagers. In addition, black women, women who did not graduate from high school and women in the Midwest had significantly reduced odds of marrying while premaritally pregnant (0.2-0.6).

As the analyst observes, out-of-wedlock births have long been a national concern, especially when they occur among teenagers, because of "the emotional and economic vulnerability of young women and the...consequences for their infant children." Nevertheless, she notes that a growing societal acceptance of premarital pregnancies and births has been accompanied by an increase in programs that seek to "look at the issue from the viewpoint of mothers' and their children's health and well-being."--L. Gerstein


1. Bachu A, Trends in premarital childbearing: 1930 to 1994, Current Population Reports, 1999, Series P-23, No. 197.