1 in 3 Babies Born to Unmarried Moms

Nearly one-third of all babies born in Russia last year were born to unwed mothers, double the percentage of a decade earlier and at a level not seen since World War II, government statistics show.

More than 40 percent of these babies were born to teenagers, according to the statistics, which were compiled by the Center for Demography and Human Ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences and published in the Nov. 5-18 issue of the center's magazine, Demoscope.

The number of births to married women dropped from 1.87 million in 1989 to 912,500 in 2000, while the number of births to unmarried women increased from 291,700 to 354,300, the magazine article said. The percentage of births to unmarried women jumped from 13 percent to 28 percent.

But the implications of this trend remain unclear, said Sergei Zakharov, the center's laboratory head who co-authored the article.

This is because Russia has few statistics on its single mothers, such as whether they are living with the fathers of their children or what their income and education levels are, he said.

"The most significant thing about this trend is that we don't know enough about it," Zakharov said. "We don't know who these women are. That means we're not in a position to say if it's bad or good."

Murray Feshbach, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, who studies demographic trends in Russia, agreed. "It's not the numbers that are important. What's important is whether the parents of the children are living together and providing dual care."

The last time out-of-wedlock births reached a similarly high level was during World War II, when roughly one-quarter of children were born to unmarried women. The reason was clear: Millions of young men were dying on the front lines.

Today's trend is harder to explain.

The number of births to unmarried teenagers, ages 15-19, grew more rapidly than any other age group — from 55,695 in 1990 to 66,859 in 2000, a percentage leap from 20 percent to 41 percent. The teenage population also grew during the decade.

Women over 40 account for about 35 percent of the births to unwed mothers, a percentage that was fairly stable throughout the 1990s.

The government statistics show that, although once higher in the countryside, the number of children born to unmarried women in rural and urban areas evened out in the 1990s.

To understand the implications for the children and society of the growing number of out-of-wedlock births, we need to know the social status of the women having these babies, Zakharov said. He pointed to Western research that has shown a connection between single parenthood and poverty.

"Demographers and sociologists are looking for help from the government," he said. "But a focus on the decline in the overall birth rate means there is no real interest."