The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Pregnancy in the Pine Tree State—The Disturbing Retreat from Wedlock

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

With good reason, public-health officials carefully track the well-being of the nation’s pregnant women. After all, their well-being translates into the well-being of the next generation. It is consequently a matter of deep concern when officials report an adverse trend among these women. And unfortunately, a new study out of Maine delivers such a sobering report—an increasing number of pregnant women and their children appear vulnerable to the health and social problems that come with out-of-wedlock childbirth.

Completed by researchers at the University of Southern Maine, this new study identifies “prepregnancy, prenatal, and postpartum demographic, behavioral, and health trends for women having children in Maine from 2000 to 2010 and for their babies.” Of particular concern to the researchers are adverse trends which might make it difficult for the state of Maine to meet the goals set forth in 2010 by the Federal department of Health and Human Services in Healthy People 2020.

To assess the trends in question, the researchers delve into data collected from 12,600 women between 2000 and 2010 from the pregnancy risk assessment monitoring system (PRAMS) maintained by the state of Maine and by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The trends identified by analyzing these data matter, of course, to officials in Maine. But the authors of the new study explain that in scrutinizing “a broad range of pregnancy-related variables with a more limited geographical context,” they aim to highlight “specific health priorities and interventions for Maine and areas of important inquiry for those in other states.”

And officials in all of the 50 states have reason to pay attention when the Southern Maine scholars warn of the consequences of a particularly threatening social trend among pregnant women—a retreat from marriage. Noting the clear increase in the fraction of women giving birth unmarried, the researchers report that 69.9% of mothers were married in 2000 but that—because of a year-by-year decline—the percentage fell to just a 63.6% average for the period as a whole.

Acknowledging that “the declining marriage rate found in this study follows national trends at work since the 1960s,” the authors of this new study recognize that this trend carries “health implications”: “Being unmarried is generally associated with poorer health, and parental health has an impact on children’s health.” What is more, the researchers understand that “children born to unmarried women are at higher risk of adverse birth outcomes including low birth weight, preterm birth, and infant mortality than are children born to married women, probably because being an unmarried mother is a marker for having a low income and a risk factor for a range of measures of social disadvantage including food insecurity.”

Public officials who review this new study out of Maine have every reason to make it an urgent health priority to reverse the perilous retreat from wedlock in every state of the American union. 

(David E. Harris et al., “11-Year Trends in Pregnancy-Related Health Indicators in Maine, 2000-2010,” Journal of Pregnancy 2014: 780626, emphasis added, Web.)