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In Europe, unmarried parents on rise

More than 1 in 3 children on the Continent are born to unmarried couples, a sixfold increase from the 1970s.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2006


Germany's Bild newspaper has called it "the Steffi Graf trend." And though a pregnant Ms. Graf ended up marrying Andre Agassi a few days before their son, Jaden, was born, Bild has a point.

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Across Europe, the number of children born to unmarried couples has risen sixfold over the past 35 years to nearly 1 in 3 of all babies, altering the face of the European family beyond recognition - and beyond recall - say demographers and social analysts.

While most governments have regarded the transformation as simply a sign of the times, some experts are sounding the alarm.

Given the relative fragility of de facto unions - and the social implications of single-parent families - "the rise in births outside marriage is a real cause for concern" warns John Ermisch, an economics professor at the University of Essex in England.

If Prof. Ermisch's findings that de facto British unions break up more quickly and more often than marriages apply throughout the continent, points out Dr. Peter Brierley of the Christian Research group in London, the increasing numbers of single-parent families in Europe will mean governments will have to rethink policy on a wide range of issues.

More housing will be needed for more families, more childcare facilities will have to be provided, more thought will have to be given to employing single mothers, and more attention paid to the particular social and educational needs of youngsters brought up by only one parent. All this, with many European countries already faltering under the strain of generous state welfare programs.

Reflecting different social, religious, and economic traditions that have shaped the 25 countries in the European Union (EU), the number of births outside marriage varies widely from one end of the Continent to the other.

In Sweden, the figure is 56 percent. In Greece it is 4 percent. In between come France with 48 percent, Britain at 42 percent and Germany at 28 percent, according to the EU's official statistics branch, Eurostat.

In Germany, one survey shows only 38 percent of women favor marriage

But nearly all nations share two salient factors in common: the numbers have skyrocketed in recent decades, and the increase is due to children born to co-habitating couples, not to single mothers.

"Marriage is no longer considered an indispensable preliminary to welcoming a child" found a recent French parliamentary report on the family, which noted that "free unions" have become much more common - and not just for very young people.

In Germany, a recent Federal Statistics Office survey reached similar conclusions: only 38 percent of women and 30 percent of men see marriage as a necessary part of living together.

In Britain, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found in 1999 that cohabiting couples accounted for 24 percent of the men living in any kind of partnership and 25 percent of women - double the rates prevalent in 1986.

"People these days don't expect their marriages to last, so they think 'why get married in the first place if weddings are expensive and divorce complicated?' " says Dr. Brierley, whose organization provides information to help British church leaders make informed policy decisions.

And where there are cohabiting partnerships, there are babies. "One of the important engines behind the rise in non-marital childbearing," said the ONS study of European trends, "is the rise in cohabitation that has occurred, particularly since the 1980s, in many European countries."

Why a sixfold jump in unwed parents since the 1970s?

Ermisch, the University of Essex professor, sees the origins of the trend in the contraceptive pill, which began to enjoy wide popularity in Europe in the 1970s. "It used to be very costly to delay marriage," he argues.

"Either you didn't have sex or you risked having an illegitimate baby. The pill made delay less costly," he says, and as live-in couples formed - and firmed up - increasingly they decided to start a family.