Photo by Mikael Stenberg on Unsplash

Acknowledging Fatherhood: Child Births to Unmarried Parents

by Sean Kullman

Although we have seen an overall decrease in the birthrate in the U.S. in 2020, we continue to see an increase in the number of out-of-wedlock births. Though some might rightly argue the decrease in birthrate is an increasing national concern, the answer should not be found in out-of-wedlock births. The Adverse Childhood Experience Survey and other research show children born out-of-wedlock often grow up poorer and have greater challenges throughout life. This does not mean a child born out-of-wedlock cannot be healthy and successful, but it does reveal the burden is much harder.

In 2003, the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), an office that advises the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, released a report on “State Experience and Perspectives on Reducing Out-of-Wedlock Births.” In 2003, ASPE stated the following:

Nationally, the percent of births that are nonmarital has increased substantially over the last 30 years, from about 11% in 1970 to about 33% in 1994, where it has remained relatively unchanged since that time (Ventura and Bachrach, 2000; Martin et al., 2002).

Nearly 20 years later, ASPE and other agencies seem to fail to fully grasp policy actions at the state and federal levels that have only contributed to the increase in the number of babies born to unwed parents. In 2020, the number of births to unmarried parents increased to 40% nationally, and more than half of U.S. states are over 40%. According to a 2019 CDC report, twenty-six states are seeing births to unmarried parents between 40% to 55%. (Top and bottom 5 states listed at bottom of article in Appendix).

Policies and Court Actions Deny Equal Protections

In both social narratives and policy actions, there is a systemic failure to address the importance of fatherhood. It remains one of the largest policy failings facing the U.S., and the troubling rhetoric surrounding out-of-wedlock births only contributes to the problem.

The National Center for Health Statistics has tracked out-of-wedlock births for decades, often referring to these children as babies born to unmarried mothers. Although babies are born to unmarried mothers, they are also born to unmarried fathers. The phrase, babies born to unmarried mothers, contributes to the distancing of fatherhood as an essential part of creating and parenting children.

The courts, conversely, have tried to ascribe paternity even in instances when

  • the person listed on the birth certificate is not the biological father

  • the ascribed father is not the biological father

  • the father later learns he is not the biological father

  • the ascribed father questions the actual paternity and is denied paternity testing

The courts have been compelled to deny equal protections under the law in the form of shared parenting rights as well as questions regarding paternity. There is a long and contentious history of policy makers and social programs ignoring the rights of fathers. The language, policy, and court actions at the state and federal levels have essentially declared fatherhood as an inconsequential element of having and raising children and relegated it to a primarily financial transaction. In other words, who will pay to raise a child other than the state? There is a financial incentive on the part of the state to declare a man legally responsible for a child born out of wed-lock. There are additional financial incentives to create contentious court battles that support an entire legal apparatus that takes money out of the pockets of families and children and places it with special interests who profit from the misfortune of others. Minority men have been the group most hurt by these policy and legal apparatuses.

Fatherhood has long been ignored by social policies. Whether it is Women Infants and Children (WIC), The White House Gender Policy Council, and numerous other agencies that do not include boys and men, the words men and fathers remain absent from policies that should aim to recognize fathers and mothers as essential and equal under the law. We see the same absence in policy titles and headlines.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), for instance, denies the reality that men are also victims of violence. Imagine the House of Representative passing the Male Opioid-Crisis Act (MOCA) or the Stop Male Suicide Act (SMS) because males account for the majority of victims of these social ills.

The language is intentional, and the time has come to discourage the use of language that denies paternity. GIBM encourages researchers and others to use the phrase babies born to unmarried parents to accurately establish that a child was born to a mother and a father who were not married. There are certainly instances when the father is not known and this type of data needs to be further disaggregated. GIBM believes further disaggregation of data to establish types of out-of-wedlock births is also important. Some of these include:

  • Babies born to unmarried parents

  • Babies born to unmarried parents where testing identified biological fathers

  • Babies born to unmarried parents where testing was not used to identify biological fathers

  • Babies born to unmarried parents where fathers are unknown

  • Babies born to unmarried parents where mothers are unknown

(Babies are also born to single mothers and same sex couples who use IVF or surrogates to conceive. This category should be distinct from unmarried parents.)

Language and policies surrounding fatherhood must dramatically shift if we hope to be inclusive and create fair and equal rights under the law that protects children, mothers, and fathers; laws that make fathers feel essential and necessary in the raising of children. And reshaping the conversation begins with changing the language to accurately reflect the importance of fathers and the babies born to them.

Appendix of Images

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