A new report by a United Nations agency highlights the rise of out-of-wedlock births around the globe.

As Joseph Chamie, a former director of the United Nations Population Division, observes,
Various groups and organizations, including many religious institutions, have expressed serious concerns with some pressing for restrictive policies to the growing incidence and acceptance of out of wedlock births. They consider the decoupling of sexual relations and procreation from marriage as a serious problem undermining the institution of marriage, the centrality of the family for childrearing and the overall stability and wellbeing of society.

Here are nine things you should know about the global problem of out-of-wedlock births:

1. Out-of-wedlock childbirth refers to a baby born to parents who aren’t married. Of the world’s 140 million births that happened in 2016, about 15 percent (21 million) were born out of wedlock. This global average, however, does not reflect the enormous variation in the proportion of births outside of marriage across countries and regions.

2. Out-of-wedlock childbirths have become more common worldwide since the 1960s. In 1964 most countries in the Organisation of Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) had no more than 10 percent of their births outside of marriage. However, since 1970, the proportion of children born outside marriage has increased by at least 25 percentage points in most OECD countries. In 2014, on average across OECD countries, less than 40 percent of births occur outside of marriage.

3. In ten OECD countries—Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, France, Mexico, Norway, Slovenia, and Sweden—more than 50 percent of children are born outside of marriage. In Chile, Costa Rica, and Iceland, the rate is as high as around two-thirds of births (i.e., more than 70 percent). In only five OECD countries—Greece, Israel, Japan, Korea and Turkey—are less than 10 percent of children born out-of-wedlock, with rates particularly low (at around 2 percent to 3 percent) in Japan, Korea, and Turkey.

4. Just as there is wide variation among countries, there is wide variation within countries. For example, while the national average for the United States in 2014 was 40 percent, the proportions of births out of wedlock for whites was 29 percent; Hispanics, 53 percent; and African Americans, 71 percent. The proportions of such births for all these groups were substantially lower 50 years ago. (In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a top Labor Department official and later a U.S. senator from New York, warned of a “tangle of pathology” that was resulting from the number of black children—25 percent—that were being born out of wedlock.)

5. In the West, many out-of-wedlock births are to cohabitating couples rather than to single mothers. Around 2010, 1 in 10 European children up to the age of 2 lived with a single mother, compared with 4 of 10 children who lived with a couple that was not married. While the average OECD proportion of children living with two married parents declined from 72 percent to 67 percent between 2005 and 2014, the proportion living with cohabiting parents increased from 10 percent to 15 percent over that decade. The highest proportions are observed in five countries—Estonia, France, Iceland, Slovenia and Sweden—where one-quarter of the children are living with cohabiting parents. (In Austria, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and the United States, more than one-fifth of the children live with a sole parent, which substantially exceeds the proportion of children with cohabiting parents.)

6. The proportions of children living in single-parent households vary considerably across countries. At the lowest levels—where 10 percent or less of the children live in single-parent families—are countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. High levels of single-parent families are found in Latin American and African countries where close to 40 percent of the children live with mothers only, and about 4 percent live with fathers only. Other countries with high levels of children in sole-parent households include Mozambique, 36 percent; Dominican Republic, 35 percent; Liberia, 31 percent; and Kenya, 30 percent.

7. The shift toward illegitimacy is having a detrimental affect on children. According to a report produced by researchers from Columbia and Princeton Universities, children born to unmarried parents do not fare as well as children born to married parents. The research found that children born to unmarried parents are disadvantaged relative to children born to married parents in terms of parental capabilities and family stability. Additionally, parents’ marital status at the time of a child’s birth is a “good predictor of longer-term family stability and complexity, both of which influence children’s longer-term wellbeing.”

8. The Columbia and Princeton report found that father involvement declines over time for out-of-wedlock births. By age 5, only 50 percent of non-resident fathers have seen their child in the past month. While formal child support from non-resident fathers increases over time, informal cash support and in-kind support (such as buying toys or clothes) declines. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, children who live without their biological fathers and are, on average, at least two- to three-times more likely to be poor; to use drugs,;to experience educational, health, emotional, and behavioral problems; to be victims of child abuse; and to engage in criminal behavior, than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents. In contrast, children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, avoid high-risk behaviors, and exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior.

9. What should Christians do if they have a child out of wedlock? The first step it to seek, if necessary, God’s forgiveness for having sexual relations outside the bonds of matrimony. As John Piper says, “sexual relations belong only in the safe, holy, beautiful sanctuary of a marriage covenant between one man, one woman, while they both live. So, the presence of a child in the womb outside marriage is either the result of being sinned against in rape or the result of sinning.” (Piper also adds, “it is crucial that every Christian and every church make clear that any stigma to pregnancy outside marriage is because the pregnancy signifies previous sin, not because the pregnancy is sin.”) Second, the couple should stop cohabiting and, if possible, get married—even if one partner is an unbeliever. As Russell Moore says,
Even in repentance, you cannot simply “move on.” You are now, and forever will be, the father of her child. She is the mother of your baby You had a responsibility not to entangle yourself with an unbeliever. You had an obligation not to violate God’s command for sexual chastity outside of marriage. But you have done these things and you can’t turn back time. Your only question now is whether, in addition to being a fornicator, you will also be an orphan-maker. . . .
The Scripture also tells us we are to give to everyone what is due (Rom. 13:7). What is due to the woman you have impregnated and the child you have conceived? The answer, I believe, is what our Father God models for us: provision, protection, and covenant faithfulness. A child is meant to have two parents, a mother and a father (Gen. 1-2). Love this woman, and love this child.
Third, if marriage is not a viable option (e.g., one partner refuses to get married), both parents have an obligation to support the child. As Paul tells us, one who does not “provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household” has “denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8).

Other posts in this series: